“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part 2″… All is Well

Posted on July 16, 2011


It appeared, at first, that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was a decidedly odd title for a book about discovering horcruxes – those magical objects containing splinters of Voldemort’s soul – and destroying the Dark Lord. Why not the more straightforward Harry Potter and the Horcruxes? What part do the Hallows – the elder wand, the resurrection stone, the invisibility cloak – play in Harry’s quest, except as tangential highlights, scribbles along the margins? But as anyone familiar with JK Rowling’s remarkable adventures now knows, the journey to the destination – the end, in this case – is incomplete without detours on winding bylanes, some of which are frustrating dead ends, many of which offer sights the undeviating traveller can never hope to experience. And only gradually do we stumble upon the revelation that Deathly Hallows is as much about Harry vanquishing Voldemort as his becoming – at least for a brief while – the owner of the Hallows, the wizarding Holy Grail, which makes him the Master of Death. In other words, The Boy Who Lived… And Lived And Lived.

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David Yates’ screen adaptation strives for this sense of serendipity, most notably in the scene where Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) finally seal their long-simmering relationship with a kiss. In the book, Hermione flies into Ron’s arms upon learning of his hitherto unexpressed commitment to house elves, but here, the moment is graver, far more resonant. Filling out a scene only alluded to by Rowling, Yates shows Ron and Hermione entering the Chamber of Secrets in order to retrieve basilisk fangs that will enable them to destroy the horcrux that is Helga Hufflepuff’s cup. (Good luck trying to understand any of that if you’re a stranger to the Potter universe.) Mission accomplished – then they are besieged by an explosion of water. They run for their lives. And then, just as suddenly as it began, the tsunami ends. That’s when the kiss happens, when they are flushed with victory at having their own little moment in Harry Potter’s story, and when they’re scared and alone and aware that there is still a war raging outside and they may not live another day. This, we think, is how it must have really happened.

But elsewhere – and inevitably – it’s still Harry’s story. The first two films, overstuffed and underdone, lumbered under the leaden hand of director Chris Columbus, who felt compelled to transfer to screen every detail in the book. With Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, still the best film in the series, Alfonso Cuarón jettisoned large chunks of exposition in favour of narrative excitement, and that’s the model the subsequent films have followed. Fans of the books, therefore, have grown used to inhabiting these films in a parallel dimension in which the same characters do the same things but in slightly different ways, and we console ourselves that this is primarily Potter’s story and we have to hurry through it in two-something hours, and that the supporting characters given short shrift in the films are still in the books, where we can meet them any time we wish. Still, it’s a shock to witness the abbreviation of one of the most unexpected deaths in Deathly Hallows. We barely register the tragedy, and without this emotional freight, a famous wand-off towards the end rings horribly hollow.

The other complaint is that Deathly Hallows could have used some of the briskness of the book. While it’s admirable that Yates wants to break free of the bad habits of the modern-day summer movie – the reckless cutting; the relentless noise (this has got to be the quietest blockbuster of all time) – we’re left with the feeling that he tilts too much in the other direction, sacrificing adventure for a solemn sense of occasion. We’re asked to remember, every minute, that this is not just a movie, any movie, but something momentous, that it’s not just the close of a story but the end of a pop-culture era. That’s possibly why the director inflates the final face-off between Harry and Voldemort into a meaningless action sequence far removed from the book, where they duelled in the midst of students and teachers, and inside Hogwarts, where both were schooled and where they both learned their magic. Why have Voldemort crumble into the ether with only Harry as mute witness? Why not give us the satisfaction of a cheer ringing out from the rest of the wizarding world at Hogwarts? Even joy is muted in this last installment.

But if Deathly Hallows isn’t quite Prisoner of Azkaban or Half-Blood Prince, it’s still a worthy conclusion to the series, thanks largely to actors who’ve come to feel like family. Daniel Radcliffe has grown so fully into his alter ego that it’s going to be difficult to see him in anything else again, without the spectacles and the lightning scar, though the best performance comes from Maggie Smith (as the starchy Professor McGonagall). She packs off Snape (the always entertaining Alan Rickman, whose speech seems to get slower and slower, as if struggling to burst through a sludge of ever-thickening molasses) with a spirited brandish of her wand, alliteratively inducts a student into the defence of Hogwarts on the basis of his “particular proclivity for pyrotechnics,” and brings stone statues to life by invoking Piertotum Locomotor. Simpering like a schoolgirl after a first kiss, she confesses, “I’ve always wanted to use that spell.” Minerva McGonagall may be a far greater witch in the books, but the movies are where we get glimpses of mighty acting magic. The heart swells upon sighting, for fleeting seconds, professors Trelawney and Flitwick and Sprout, reminders all of a far more innocent age of witchcraft and wizardry, but the film’s finest surge of emotion arrives at the end, during the epilogue, when we realise we’ve come full circle, to a time where being a wizard carries no more responsibilities than crashing through a brick wall and being on time for a train.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Cinema: English