'Harry Potter' Says an Impressive Goodbye
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Not to discourage any prospective viewers, but "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" is not the ideal entry point for anyone interested in the adventures of the intrepid teen wizard created by British author J. K. Rowling -- for the obvious reason that it is, as you most likely know, the finale of the series of film adaptations of Rowling's novels. Rowling's send-off to her beloved-worldwide characters was the seventh book in the series, but it is so fraught with climactic incident that two films were needed to get it all down, silver screen-wise. "So, this is it," said some dude sitting next to me in the screening room where I saw it, as the lights went down. I imagine quite a few paying customers will mutter something similar after the trailers in a multiplex near you. This is more than just a movie: It's a pop culture occasion.
What director David Yates, screenwriter Steve Kloves, an army of designers and technicians, an incredibly engaging and accomplished cast, and everyone else involved with the production have put onscreen is entirely appropriate to the occasion, in the event, that is, that you have been paying attention to the seven films that have gone before. Not to belabor the point, but more than once during the grandiose proceedings, which see the once-enchanted wizard academy Hogwarts pretty much razed to the ground as a prelude to wizard Harry's final showdown with the implacably evil and bearing-a-spooky-flat-face-to-prove-it Lord Voldemort, I wondered what someone ignorant of the Potter mythos -- the sort of being one might call a muggle -- would make of the proceedings. I myself, while I've seen all of the Potter films, only just learned how to spell the word "horcrux."
In any event, one way to look at this is as "The Longest Day" of wizard movies: It's a grand battle, everybody shows up, various strategies are tried and abandoned, the price of the sacrifice is assessed, and so on. Ralph Fiennes' rampaging but sometimes sly Voldemort even takes some time to play Axis Sally, telepathically telling the surviving students at the falling Hogwarts to give up, that the cause is hopeless and the kid is useless. It's all grand stuff, what with turncoat dragons, cursed diadems, Harry's mates Ron and Hermione finding love, tense games of guess-the-wand owner, and much, much more, and it moves along briskly and looks great and is all pretty ... well, impressive but pro forma, with the allowance that with this series, pro forma has always been pretty darn good.
But then it gets better, actually. The scene in which the conundrum of Harry's fate is revealed via the prism of the once-hated instructor Snape's tears is a sequence of genuine emotion and near-Shakespearean story invention. Harry's tormented understanding of what he must do in that scene's aftermath is conveyed beautifully by Daniel Radcliffe, and it's commendable the way Yates quiets things down around his character. Moments in summer blockbusters when you can hear a pin drop in the auditorium are rarely intended, and rarely achieved; I bet this will be one of them. Similarly quiet and spellbinding is Harry's final conversation with his dear departed mentor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), which contains some of the best writing in the film and brings its concerns well outside the realm of teen fantasy and into the genuinely philosophical. "Of course it's happening in your head, Harry; why should that mean it's not real?" asks the older wizard at one point. It's not Heidegger, but on the other hand, you don't get that kind of dialogue in a "Transformers" movie, do you?
In other respects, the story line proceeds in a headlong rush, which, truth to tell, gives short shrift to some of the series' beloved characters and the beloved Brit master thespians who play them. For instance, Jim Broadbent's Professor Slughorn does show up, albeit in fewer individual shots than there are Harry Potter films, but what are you going to do? In the end, the thing works like, well, magic, to the extent that this reviewer, who is still not entirely sure what a horcrux is, now that he's learned to spell it, got kind of choked up at the film's very sweet and not at all inapt postscript.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.