Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bitter(sweet) End: HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2


Oh, what a treasure it is to return once again to Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry, home to many magical adventures, endless inventive expressions of imagination, and the greatest fantasy creation of recent memory. The occasion for the return is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, in which the trio we have followed across seven films in ten years, Harry, Ron, and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) come back to school to finish what was started so long ago. The last film was spent in wandering prologue, finding scraps of the snaky, villainous Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) soul in order to render him mortal once more. Now, their quest winding down, these three young people find themselves coming into their closest encounters yet with death and destruction. The story of Harry Potter, the boy who lived, and his fateful integrality in the evil plots of bad wizards, is coming to an end.

What I’ll miss most of all about this series, other than the memorable universe it has created and its many wondrous characters and creatures, is the way the filmmakers increasingly used the clout of their hugely successful endeavor to make big budget studio franchise productions of uncommon artistry and patience. Take, for example, the calm-before-the-storm that opens this particular installment, directed yet again by David Yates and adapted by Steve Kloves. Harry and his friends are huddled in a safe house on the shore, contemplating their next move. The goblin Griphook (Warwick Davis), rescued from the clutches of villainy at the end of the last film, sits brooding in an upstairs room. He may or may not help them; in fact he has the potential to do more harm than good. There’s a striking shot (it’s a film of striking shots courtesy cinematographer Eduardo Serra) that finds the main trio standing on the staircase, speaking in hushed voices, silhouetted against the bright white light streaming through the window half-glimpsed behind them. The composition creates a startling tension that would be lost entirely if the scene were shot in a more conventional way.

This way of creating extra tension through unexpected choices continues throughout the film. There’s a scene where characters sneaking past a dangerous dragon are encouraged to keep the creature at bay by making noise using handheld wooden devices that make an eerily soft rattle when shaken. There’s a sequence in which Harry and friends use the cover of nightfall to sneak into Hogsmeade, the village adjacent to Hogwarts, that finds the town blanketed in snow and lit with the soft, gorgeously creepy light of what appears to be hundreds of candles in just as many windows. Later, on the cusp of chaos erupting into the walls of Hogwarts, an entire army of Voldemort’s henchmen is both reduced and heightened in the image and overwhelming sound of one man crunching his foot just one step further, testing for the lack of a magical force field.  These are striking choices of filmmakers willing to make artistic choices with their surefire hit, rather than merely pushing out the bare minimum.

This being the conclusion of all this Harry Potter, Yates and his team have gone all out bringing memorable sights and characters from all previous installments back on screen, even if it’s just to give them one last great moment. With a cast this deeply and broadly talented, a veritable who’s who of the British acting world, it makes sense to put them to good use. The late, great Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) gets a nice ghostly speech. Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall gets her best moments in years with a great “man the battle stations” scene and a terrific standoff with Alan Rickman’s sneering Severus Snape. Speaking of Snape, Rickman, the ultimate acting MVP of the entire series, gets an impressive send-off that deepens and redeems his character, revealing his tormented complexity once and for all. Other choice moments are handed out for conflicted bad boy Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), humble, charming Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), the fiercely protective mother Weasley (Julie Walters), and the wild, evil Bellatrix Lestrange, (Helena Bonham Carter, who is asked to do the trickiest acting of her role when a character impersonates her with some Polyjuice Potion). Others, like Jim Broadbent, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Jason Isaacs, Helen McCrory, and John Hurt have little more to do than show up and get their close up, but it’s wonderful to see each and every one of them, even the seemingly long-absent Gemma Jones as Madame Pomfrey and Miriam Margolyes as Professor Sprout.

It’s bittersweet to see the cast and the sets one last time, especially with a film devoted entirely to tying up the loose ends and ending definitively and conclusively. With J.K. Rowling’s final book chopped inelegantly in two, stretching across two films, neither concluding chapter lives up to the full potential. The last film, a minor disappointment for me, was a frustratingly incomplete film with great moments but little momentum, a film that stopped rather than ended. Now Part 2 suffers from a similar problem, starting rather than beginning and spending the majority of its runtime with conflict and climax. Both films feel lopsided. I wish that we had been given one great four-hour finale instead of two mildly hobbled two-hour segments. To my mind, the split has had the unfortunate effect of rendering each half curiously small with neither allowed to use the other to more immediately inform the epic stakes of the full narrative arc.

And yet, the film moved me. It draws on the entire history of the franchise, using snippets of footage and music from past films in elegant flashback fashion that gain an added power through their mere reappearances. These are memories not just of a decade’s worth of incident in the lives of the characters, but a decade’s worth of memories for the audience as well. I grew older right alongside these kids. Now we’re all young adults. The filmmakers lucked into three wonderful children who happened to grow into wonderful actors. The whole sweep of the franchise has been about aging, about learning, about growing and changing. In a lovely epilogue, we see that, though the immediate story of Harry Potter may have ended, the story of Hogwarts, the story of this magical world will continue, delighting the next generation just as it did their parents.

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