[14 July 2011]
Finale movies are hard to do well. Most are comprised of huge, extended battle scenes, in which the emotional moments have to carry through amongst, or perhaps in spite of, full-scale carnage and spools of CGI. In the case of Harry Potter, it’s not only the final showdown this franchise has been building up to, after several episodes of back-story and heady series mythology; it’s also the last of these ‘event’ movies, an occasion for much pomp and fanfare alone. The packed midnight screening I attended was full of Potter-philes, dressed up and wanting to interact with the movie as if it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Harry Potter and the The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 may as well be called The Battle for Hogwarts; snipped off from the latter half of J.K. Rowling’s final book into a solid two-hour film, there is some brief cleaning up of loose narrative ends, then the rest of the movie takes place at Hogwarts. The school, one of the most important elements of the films and used in a different expressive way by each of the directors to have helmed this series, gets turned into a medieval battleground that looks like something out of World of Warcraft.
There are name checks of all the old cast and crew, from Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall, who gets a few funny lines, to Jim Broadbent and David Thewlis, given short shrift. There are also scores of magical creatures, long showcases of the best visual effects money can buy and a couple of tiresome shots of CGI armies rampaging into battle. In short, mayhem ensues, making this an immensely skilled ‘last stand’ summer popcorn movie that is right up there with The Return of the King in elaborate detail and scope.
To complain that the movie is confusing and doesn’t make sense if you haven’t read the book is to be like the hapless ant in an oncoming rampage. Frankly, it doesn’t make a mite of difference, as the hordes of fans are the ones that will sweep to this, revel in the extravaganza, know exactly what happens and then discuss after it’s over the transferral of material from page to screen. Early reviews suggest, too, that the press is getting carried away by the fever of it all, that after ten years, having no more Harry, Ron and Hermione to come back to every couple of years is something we’re going to miss on a cultural level.
But all the film adaptations have been sub-standard to the books. Director David Yates, who has overseen the previous four Potters including this one, has an ok grasp of the Potter universe but a wildly inconsistent standard – his Order of the Phoenix was inert and poorly staged, The Half-Blood Prince handsome-looking but over-directed, and The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 failed to sustain its knife-edge sense of danger. I fear he lacks the talent to steer this enormous epic through its final chapter. To establish the sense of gravitas needed for this climax, to show us the individual moments with Harry, Ron & Hermione as well as the kick-ass action-fantasy splurge, Yates accomplishes it through facile cutting.
This results in a clunky adventure in which the moments that should drive the story home distract from the bigger ones, and vice versa. The romances feel tokenistic and slow down the momentum, while the details of who dies, and how, are underwhelming and lack a larger context within the film. This problem is most pronounced with Helena Bonham Carter’s marvellously wicked rendition of Bellatrix Lestrange, a character begging for a satisfying comeuppance; but it’s all over way too quickly.
Viewers may also feel like they are having to make leaps of faith not supported by logic; a scene in which Harry revisits a crucial ‘memory,’ one of the movie’s key plot points, given to him by Alan Rickman’s enigmatic Professor Snape, is fragmentary and assumes much prior knowledge, as if Yates was eager to race ahead and get back to the fighting, already. Speaking of which – that massive duel between Harry and Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the epitome of evil, which has been built up so long throughout this series, turns out to be weak and anticlimactic.
Anticlimactic might be the best way to describe The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 as well – which is not to detract from how spectacular it looks. The saccharine coda from the book, which finds Rowling channelling C.S. Lewis at his most sentimental, is included here and finds the trio done up in age make-up, 19 years later, sending their children off to Hogwarts for the first time. This was greeted with much hilarity in the cinema. Their waving goodbye is symbolic for what the marketing campaigns have all been telling us all this time: this is the end of an era. So it’s goodbye to Harry Potter with this film, a fable that should shake us to our core. Considered together, the series may be more than the sum of its parts; but there’s something ironic in that this farewell is more or less at the level its seven predecessors have been – good, passable entertainment, totally critic-proof, though a little dramatically weightless, even forgettable.