Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Miguel Penabella | 27 November 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Dir. David Yates, 2011

All glittering pretenses aside, the collective scope of the Harry Potter film adaptations is nothing short of the finest visual and interpretive achievements of filmmaking in the past few decades. The series’ unique ability to organize thousands of pages of J.K. Rowling’s written material, dozens of acting professionals and newcomers, and a multitude of locations into a coherent, structured whole verifies its stately position amongst contemporary big-budget cinema. With comparisons already made to Peter Jackson’s masterfully-executed The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in terms of sheer epic scope, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 defines a filmmaker’s ultimate realization of melding action, story, humor, drama, character, and composition. David Yates’s final outing as director with tried-and-true writer Steve Kloves at his side solidifies their collective effort in crafting strikingly resonant, oftentimes profound blockbuster films. The second half of the Deathly Hallows delivers the final onslaught of imagery that the first half wisely sidesteps (in order to make for a uniquely atmospheric, slow-paced turn in the series), an element that synchronously strengthens and undermines it. A touchingly fulfilled finale rather than simply a tortuously overdramatic episode, the film nevertheless rides on the coattails of its superior predecessor rather than standing alone as a sturdy, individual installment.

David Yates (directing all the Potter films since Order of the Phoenix) has maintained a fragile balance between faithfulness to Rowling’s original text and true innovation in filmmaking, sometimes venturing out to flex his creative muscles. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 remains a product of mainstream Hollywood cinema, yet also miraculously salvages the politically and socially reflective consciousness of the original material, an ability that Yates has neatly established throughout his stint in adapting J.K. Rowling’s novels. So even as the fiery, action-heavy resolution to the franchise contains more explosions and deadly spells flying across the screen, Yates still grasps a sense of empathy and identification with the characters who have continuously grown throughout the series. The Harry Potter adaptations are a film franchise that grew up along with its audience, and consequently, Deathly Hallows: Part 2’s glorious ensemble has a prominence virtually unsurpassed by any other series. Peter Jackson’s aforementioned work comes to mind, and may be the only other blockbuster franchise that effectively extracts audience responsiveness despite its colossal scope and diverse collection of talents.

After a hasty recap of the concluding scene from Part 1 (Voldemort acquiring the Elder Wand), Deathly Hallows: Part 2 reintroduces that sense of empathy from its onset, quickly cutting to one of the finest opening shots in all the Harry Potter films. The gaunt ribs of the dementors as they loom over the castle grounds of Hogwarts and the film’s dark, saturated photography gracefully establishes the gravity of events to come before the camera slowly fixes itself upon the silhouetted figure of Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). Looking over his students amidst an environment of black and grey, the shot closes in on his ponderous, eternally introspective face before cutting to the titles. Not a mere stylistic exercise or a cheap stab at emotional pull, the shot manifests the fundamental center inherent at the film’s core that Yates spends his two hours attempting to break down and reilluminate. The center is Severus Snape, a relatively underused character throughout the film series who ultimately owns this film with Rickman’s total refusal to surrender his eroded presence without, for a moment, possessing and controlling the closing moments of the franchise and suggesting a greater authorial presence. 

Rickman’s performance in Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is layered in three dimensions, desiring to conflict ingrained perceptions of the typically underdeveloped character with a powerfully stirring last bow here. Not offered the opportunity for substantial dialogue or interaction with other characters long after the film has begun, Snape is left to his own devices off-screen as a figure entirely apart from the world. Yates, Kloves, and Rowling, the collective “authorial voice” of the film, establishes an undercurrent of Snape’s distressed consciousness beneath the action seen through the main trio’s (Radcliffe, Watson, Grint) point of view. All throughout the movie, the main trio are reminded of Snape’s authoritarian administration of Hogwarts School after Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) coup d’état in Deathly Hallows: Part 1, a thought that produces afterthoughts of how such an unseen character (often utilized for quick comic relief or a witty observation) could possibly take command of the center stage. Yet Rickman manages to do just that, essentially blurring the divide between authorial vision and character subjectivity with his multilayered performance of a figure plagued by a present-day ill fortune and an even darker past. The character’s shifting allegiances throughout the series and his treacherous actions surmounts his humanity until the final revelation of his motivations is disclosed. Ultimately, it’s this dynamic from enigmatic shadow to translucent tragic hero that grounds the film apart from its viscerally overpowering fantasy visuals. 

That Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 operates with full-blown fantasy action sequences is again, concurrently good and bad. Overwhelming spectacle has the potential to undercut emotional pull amidst the heat of the moment, though Yates’s experience in presenting grand action pieces and knowing when to step back from the immediacy of battles to individual characters attests to the film’s sense of levelheadedness and restraint. And so even as the body count increases throughout the film, the combination of having Rowling’s original story in mind and Yates’s careful, emotionally resonant visuals present yields a surprisingly profound sadness. The wartime frenzy portrayed onscreen has its tense, affecting moments that instantly call to mind the German Blitz campaign of WWII as low rumbles of explosions are heard in the distance. Yates manages to keep the sense of wartime danger present through his audiovisual atmospherics, and this sense of impending peril intensifies exchanges between characters that may be conversing for the very last time (i.e. George uneasily asking Fred if he’s feeling alright moments before the heat of battle).

The grandiose battle scene of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 fulfills the promise of an explosive, sprawling tangle of action that puts into play a number of elements to intensify the final hours of the series. Firstly, the numerous characters partaking in the conflict add a level of disarray and mass frenzy as the camera pans out to reveal giants, stone sentinels, oversized spiders, etc. joining the ranks of the witches and wizards fighting in a massive struggle à la Two Towers’s Helm’s Deep. With so many figures in play, the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 feels as robust and physically grand as a Tolkien-esque large-scale fantasy battle, complete with an omniscient bird’s eye view of the field. Consequently, the characters’ hopes and trepidations spill forth before the camera’s curious eye. Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) can only conclude to Kingsley Shacklebolt (George Harris) with his timely observation mere moments before battle, “It is the quality of one’s convictions that determines success, not the number of followers.” Nevertheless, Voldemort and his sinister Death Eaters still seem too monstrously capable of overtaking the school despite all steps to hinder their unavoidable advance.

One of these steps is Minerva McGonagall’s (Maggie Smith) assembling of Hogwarts’s stone sentinels to take one desperate last stand in defending the castle grounds. Often disregarded as incidental set design in previous films, these ancient stone soldiers now carry an unexpected importance as a key advantage in repelling the invading forces. Secondly, the colossal shield positioned around the castle grounds adds a level of last-minute fortification that recalls The Phantom Menace’s deflector shields to the point where quoting “Our shields can’t repel spells of that magnitude!” would be entirely justified (to borrow Sam Woolf’s glorious observation so shamelessly, my apologies). Its eventual crumbling away under the constant bombardment of the Death Eaters’ spells carries a substantially more tangible air of dread and alarm because Yates’s direction is markedly more visceral, more affecting. The slow deterioration of the shield protecting Hogwarts signifies not only the loss of a final line of defense, not just the steady demise of the Order itself, but also deeper, more distressing losses like the destruction of adolescent innocence and the way in which each character’s hope and resilience can be chipped away over time by the external forces of the ominous outside world. The special effects are far more purposeful in this film as indicative of real danger given the context of what’s really at stake, and thus, the gradual disintegration of the last remaining defenses carries with it unmistakable sentiments of loss and downfall as the body count steadily rises throughout.

David Yates manages to fabricate praiseworthy realism and authenticity with his shots of wartime paranoia, a triumph in visual mapping largely realized through a mixture of lavish IMAX-ready special effects and attention to minute detail. The bridge collapse sequence with Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) demonstrates the film’s ability to excite audiences with its undeniably impressive pyrotechnics and imagery that feels huge with its monumental widescreen space. David Yates crafts an impressive technical feat in terms of sheer spectacle and scale, a triumph that points to the veteran Potter director’s rising aplomb in filmmaking. And even as a number of scenes carry a dreamlike, ethereal quality, Yates still retains the wartime helplessness and utter vulnerability in the face of mounting dangers slowly creeping in. In Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the breathtaking craftsmanship of the in-the-moment action in one particular scene is quite simply beyond belief. After hushing the tone into contemplative melancholy when the trio hunts down the horcruxes apart from the battle, Yates brings back the wartime adrenaline from out of the blue when the trio rushes through the onslaught in the school courtyard, avoiding flying spells and ducking behind rubble to avoid the attacks of giants. Though the trio’s struggle eventually falls back to a stretch of repose following the sudden run-in with war, the images still linger in the mind, reminding audiences that the conflict still continues in its ruthless vehemence and tireless persistence. Self-conscious flourishes such as these intensify the film, especially when paired with the infinitesimal details the film employs in formulating the wartime atmosphere – Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) giving an inaudible speech to Voldemort’s army in the margins of the screen, characters holding back from enunciating spell names to accelerate the action, the impartial camera revealing familiar faces among the dead. 

Aside from the film’s technical and visual accomplishments, the filmmakers’ ability to exercise restraint and levelheadedness even during the fury and madness of war is a revelatory aspect of the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. David Yates often chooses to step back from the midst of heated battles and zoom in on individual characters so that distinct human moments take command of the screen – Luna giving Harry advice, Ron and Hermione sharing a long-anticipated kiss, Harry pacifying the ghost of Helena Ravenclaw – but also consistently reminds audiences how small the characters are in the context of their surroundings as the incessant rumbles of off-screen explosions and the shattering of the castle architecture resumes around them. And then in one transcendent moment, Yates holds the film in a haunting freeze frame as both sides pause from fighting to collect their wounded and dead. A sense of solace appears amid the shattered stone edifices of Hogwarts and the scattershot fires blazing around the remaining characters, and the camera’s slow journey into the Great Hall, now converted into a makeshift hospital, creates a feeling of shock at what has transpired. The main trio is present at Hogwarts not to directly fight in the front lines but to locate and destroy the horcruxes, placing the large-scale mayhem into terrifying context. Thus, the sudden reintroduction of the background undertakings back to the foreground carries with it a greater sadness as the camera moves past an injured Argus Filch (David Bradley), a grieving Sybill Trelawney (Emma Thompson), and at the crux of it all, the Weasley family petrified at the loss of Fred Weasley (James Phelps).

Of course, the film maintains a wry, deathly cynicism at the final confrontation to come, but not before each and every actor in the film has their chance to deliver one poignant last bow. Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall partakes in one of the most arresting feats of acting towards the beginning of the film and nicely concludes her role in the series with fiery resolve. Revealing a stricken expression and real conviction in her eyes, she wordlessly and furiously expels Snape as headmaster of Hogwarts from out of nowhere, simply unleashing a pent-up rage with each and every flick of her wand. Molly Weasley’s (Julie Walters) “Not my daughter, you bitch!” one-liner does not carry as much profound weight as Smith’s forceful, silent reprimand, but still manages to satisfy with its obvious throwback to Sigourney Weaver’s no-nonsense Ellen Ripley in Aliens. Contrariwise, the target of Mrs. Weasley’s rebuke, Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange, also has her moments of acting finesse. Carter, in a stroke of quiet but commanding brilliance during the Gringotts bank heist sequence, lets her subtle talents seep through the screen as she relays multiple facets of behavior and personality as a Polyjuice potion character. In effect, Carter must act as Emma Watson playing Hermione Granger who in turn is attempting to mime Helena Bonham Carter’s own rendition of Bellatrix Lestrange. Offsetting her usual over-the-top idiosyncrasies and macabre quirk, Carter instead portrays a terse Hermione Granger under a thinly veiled masquerade through the delicate movements of her eyes, her nervous lip biting, lumbering high-heeled stride, etc. The scene witnesses Helena Bonham Carter as both present and absent (she speaks with Watson’s voice; she only impersonates her physical action) as she naturally approximates and ultimately inhabits the idiosyncrasies of Hermione Granger herself.

As is the case with many other of the minor actors involved, a fitting last bow emerges in the final Potter flick to allow their roles to come around full circle. Seamus Finnigan (Devon Murray) gets a nod at his proclivity for explosions; Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) delivers an emotionally shattering grief-stricken face at the sight of Harry’s presumably dead body; Actor Warwick Davis contrives separate acting renditions as both the deceitful Griphook and the comic relief-turned-wartime militant Filius Flitwick; Luna Lovegood’s (Evanna Lynch) endearingly charismatic yet shrewd disposition. Nevertheless, the main trio – Harry, Ron, Hermione – are the revitalizing protagonists of the film, with their familiar nuances and down-to-earth authenticity striking resonant chords even up until the last film in the franchise. Both Rupert Grint and Emma Watson bring out the best features in Radcliffe, whose iconic portraiture of Harry Potter can only be triumphant when grounded with the warm, emotive luminosity of Grint and the platonic affection and understanding of Watson. Radcliffe himself has gracefully reserved and disciplined his rendition of the titular hero, avoiding comical outbursts and melodrama in favor of allowing subtle flashes at humor and tenderness to develop his character for him. Furthermore, Watson and Grint’s intimate emoting is a chief pleasure of the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, with their burgeoning affection for each other revealing the series’ ability to authentically realize humanity and poignancy beneath the grandiose action and explosions at the film’s core.

More marvelous still are Matthew Lewis as Neville Longbottom and Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy, two figures in the Harry Potter series who have continued to reveal progressively more multifaceted and complex characters. Both refuse to fall under the shadows cast by the film’s larger names (Snape, Voldemort, Harry); Instead, Lewis and Felton wield a tremendous, powerful display of acting fortitude that bind their characterizations into true greatness. Longbottom’s impassioned speech and rebuttal of Voldemort at the face of mocking laughter (regardless of how much he’s proven himself already as an able, multilayered character) imprints on the mind as a characterization far removed from the inept, awkward Neville Longbottom of Sorcerer’s Stone. And in stunning counterpoint to Longbottom’s redemption is Malfoy’s disintegration as an eternally conflicted, increasingly tragic figure who carries the angst and oppression forced upon him by Voldemort. Even Malfoy’s parents (Helen McCrory and Jason Isaacs) play the part of desperate, tragic figures whose desertion from the battle signifies not a personal hypocrisy but a tired submission to the ugly, loathsome circumstances they have fallen prey to and can no longer undo.

Perhaps even more stunning a presence on screen is Michael Gambon as the fantastic, otherworldly, enduring Albus Dumbledore during the “afterlife” scene in which Harry finds himself in limbo between life and death. The blindingly white sterility of the mise-en-scène exists in a state of ethereal unbelievability, unreal and entirely real as if in a dream. The startling, grotesque fetus of Voldemort in the scene contorts the moment without warning, revealing an untarnished nightmare that directly clashes with Dumbledore’s pure, trancelike figure and untouchable virtue. Time and time again he heralds a satisfyingly sagacious insight and a detached gaze that speak to his innocence apart from the harsh, gritty violence going on out of space and out of time from the afterlife sequence. Alternatively, Snape’s flashbacks offer a completely dissimilar view on the character, affirming Dumbledore’s inherently Machiavellian nature as he willingly accepts the fact that Harry must be killed to achieve peace (a fact that he concludes without remonstration). To further darken and complicate Gambon’s character are the revelations from his brother Aberforth (an unrecognizable Ciarán Hinds) on Dumbledore’s history with indifference and selfishness to him and his sister Ariana (Hebe Beardsall). Nevertheless, the rich, intricate backstory on Albus Dumbledore’s treatment of his family lacks significant screen time as Yates completely sidesteps a potentially multifaceted side narrative. Still, the decision to merely hint at a flawed, Machiavellian Dumbledore and instead opt for the dreamy, perceptive character he is allows Gambon one of the finest of Potter movie quotes: “Of course, it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Ralph Fiennes’s eccentric take on villainy as the reptilian Voldemort has had its ups and downs throughout the series, and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 exacerbates these strengths and imperfections in distinct ways. Voldemort’s delicate wand balancing act on the tips of his fingers suggests a careful, controlled face of evil, yet the character is prone to man-child eccentricities like bursts of over-the-top vainglorious giggling when wraithlike treachery should take its place. On the other end of the spectrum lies Voldemort’s moments of true terror, such as his fight with Harry above and through the castle grounds as his face contorts into menacing, monstrous impressions of pure evil. Furthermore, the fact that Voldemort has Snape killed not with his usual “Avada Kedavra” killing curse but with Nagini unceremoniously striking at his dying body carries a dark, twisted gravitas. It’s only when Voldemort is seen capitalizing on the torment of others and surmounting all opposition that his lack of humanity truly becomes more substantiated and dynamic.

At the very root of the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 lies Snape’s glorious flashback scene, a five to ten minute long sequence that conveys the mesmerizing, often heartrending pathos of a character in need of true redemption. All throughout the franchise, Snape has steadily revealed a hidden attachment for Harry like a watchful guardian, from his act of throwing his arms around the main trio in Prisoner of Azkaban to shield them from Lupin’s werewolf state to his various moments of keeping a vigilant eye over Harry’s exploits in nearly all the films. His ubiquitous role in nearly every Potter title finally culminates in a scene of great catharsis here, contemplating a greater, deeper function in the narrative itself. The shot of Snape gazing into Harry’s face and remarking that he has “his mother’s eyes,” suggests that Snape is seeing himself, the life he could have had, and the love that he has safeguarded. This moment for him is the redemptive final revelation that he has long awaited and now comes to full fruition under Alan Rickman’s Oscar-worthy acting.

Especially deserving of praise is his tearful enunciation to Harry, “Look at me,” three words that carry profound weight with the actor’s affecting presence and steady gaze moments before the end of his screen time. Confronting the only figure remaining of his affection, Snape offers himself up as the last tie to bind the story together: his involvement in Dumbledore’s plan to finish Voldemort, his relationship with the Potters, and so on. The very secrets that have imprisoned him now serve to set him free, with the flashbacks slowly unfolding as if in a half-remembered dream, a series of memories whose scant seconds allow him an ascent into redeeming himself and finally clearing his name for good.

Individual moments as these allow Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 to linger on in the mind, but when taken in a much broader perspective, Yates’s film feels lacking as a standalone film. Part 1’s atmospheric, moody progression solidifies it as one of the best Potter films, yet this film really does live up to its title as a mere extension of its predecessor, serving as a final fight scene more than anything. At almost exactly two hours long, the film has the shortest of run times, and Yates fills his time with staccato flashes of scenes rather than living, breathing cinematic pieces that constitute a greater whole. Nevertheless, the specific elements that Yates does employ are fine in and of themselves, from the numerous memorable scenes to Alexandre Desplat’s moving end-of-days score. But what truly defines Yates as a capable director for the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is his ability to think loosely in adapting Rowling’s text to the screen, allowing for an open-ended flexibility to capture that “magic” necessary to transcend the pages of the book. The film feels immersive in its narrative approach and aesthetic, from the Gringotts sequence that employs “bank heist” mechanics suitable for The Town and then leaping across genres to full-blown battle spectacle appropriate for The Lord of the Rings and then back down to quiet, contemplative mise-en-scène characteristic of moody period pieces ranging from the recent Jane Eyre to The King’s Speech. Far from being derivative of other films, David Yates melds together the positive aspects of Rowling’s complex mythology while remaining noticeably contemporary and resonant.

From the film’s holistic narrative framework to its by-the-numbers dénouement, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is as much a hesitant film adaptation as Chris Columbus’s own Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. And perhaps that’s exactly how the last film should be. The entire Potter series has been an immense cinematic experiment in pushing the limits of Rowling’s original source text while venturing out from it with each and every director’s unique directorial vision. Yet what Yates and Kloves focus on in this last installment is sticking close to the source material, while also preserving the film’s unique emotional breadth. Harry’s unending resolve, Neville’s fearlessness, Snape’s redemption – these are but a sample of traits that have been borne out of the franchise’s concurrent maturation with its audience, a fact that may result in the film’s displacement of Rowling’s original text to a higher stance in popular culture. Yates’s concluding Potter film entrenches itself with Rowling’s iconic narrative and expressive qualities, yet also takes an unexpectedly unique path to its close. The film’s depiction of adolescent youth and coming-of-age growth, both unsure and excited of the life that emerges and is yet to come, expresses a closing chapter of innocence, wonder, childhood, and love while also signifying the birth of a new beginning and a cycle of life once more. In retrospect, the Harry Potter films did not get better with each year under director David Yates, but they definitely matured. And while Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 may not be the best finale, it’s definitely the right one, a fitful goodbye to that great and powerful wizard.

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