Directed by David Yates. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
I’m sure the conversation didn’t happen just this way, but at some point the director, the producers, the writer, and so on must have sat down and said: “Part 1 is going to do all the work and Part 2 is going to be all payoff.” The successes of Part 1 are the successes of that work, and that there is only limited space for payoff is not the problem which, frankly, I expected it to be when I saw it for the first time. Everything in Part 1 comes down to where it chooses to end, and it picks a spot that just about no one predicted it would end: at Shell Cottage, with Dobby’s (Toby Jones) funeral. (Leave out the epilogue where Voldemort cracks Dumbledore’s tomb and makes a big ol’ green thing in the sky; it’s a post-credits scene before the days when post-credits scenes were valorized.) There is an ending here, a climactic moment in which Harry (Radcliffe) and company have escaped by the narrowest of margins with a little help from Dobby, and in which Dobby has paid for his selflessness with his life. The film really concludes as Harry, without magic, buries the needy, strange, and free friend who has quietly played an outsize role in the fight against Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). It’s not a lot of payoff, but it’s enough to end a movie on. Part 1 is fairly intelligent about including multiple payoffs throughout, and it has to be if it’s going to be worth admission. Most people trying to predict when this movie would cut off chose a moment well before the Malfoy Manor escapades, and making that close shave the center of the final act forces this picture to include a number of closed plots: Harry’s escape from Privet Drive, the raid on the Ministry, Godric’s Hollow, the legend of the Deathly Hallows, the sword of Gryffindor, Malfoy Manor.
Not all of these vignettes work all of the time, and that’s largely because of poor conclusions. The seizure of the locket from Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) at the Ministry and the misadventure with the corpse of Bathilda Bagshot are losers; in the books, the former actually works well enough. Something about having David O’Hara, Steffan Rhodri, and Sophie Thompson stand in for our heroes simply doesn’t sit well, even if we are supposed to academically know that it’s them; it’s the kind of thing that just doesn’t translate neatly from the page to the screen. Much worse, and far more vexing, is the total failure of a scene that’s muddled in the book and borderline ludicrous on screen: Harry and Hermione (Watson) fail to realize that a dead woman is a snake’s Halloween costume, a jumpy fight ensues, and once again, Hermione apparates them out in the nick of time with consequences paid; at the Ministry, she could not shake off Yaxley (Peter Mullan, who I kind of wish had more to do) until he’d seen 12 Grimmauld Place, and in this case it is Harry’s wand which gets the business in the destruction. These are fairly sloppy ways to push the story forward, inelegant responses to “How do we dislodge the Trio from their comfortable hideout?” or “How can we kick off this arcane wandlore bit?” One of the failures of adaptation in this movie, in my humble opinion, is that it doesn’t find a way to completely sidestep the Godric’s Hollow sequence. In the novel, there’s no question that the piece with the snake is the worst of the whole book, but there’s also something attractive about Harry finally getting to see where his parents are buried, and where he lived until he became The Boy Who Lived. In the movie, the graves and the wreath add very little to the story; no doubt there was a better way to break Harry’s wand given this second bite at the apple.
On the other hand, the stories which provide some closure do a pretty good job. A long time ago (a long time ago) I wrote about how interesting it was that Jo Rowling decides to put so much emphasis on fairy tales, which basically constitute a closed class genre. It’s the tale of the Deathly Hallows, pleasingly animated and heavy on visual transitions, which provides a great deal of grist for this movie and its sequel’s mills, and is written in the tradition of European fairy tales past. Animation always seemed like the right choice, and in the colors they use and the shapes of these angular figures, we can see something of Lotte Reiniger’s silhouettes, themselves most famous for appearing in a fairy tale adventure of transformation and magic. Death flies off with the youngest and wisest of the three brothers in the end, which they manage to make frightening and reassuring all at once; Death was always going to take that brother, and that this brother can meet Death without fear shines through.
The best bits of the movie home in on Harry, Hermione, and especially Ron (Rupert Grint), and it’s no surprise that even without a battle of vast scope and inadequate effects budget at the end of the picture, the character work we get along the way is plenty lasting. A lot of people land on the Nick Cave sequence after Ron has gone, where Harry pulls Hermione onto an impromptu dance floor to try to cheer her up. My guess is that this sequence is more effective if one has heard of Nick Cave, and so it has always bounced off me. Ron’s sulking has not always worked in these movies—those elements of Goblet of Fire do well because of the chemistry between Radcliffe and Watson, not because of Grint’s pouting—but his points are well made. We’re wandering around the middle of nowhere looking for something we don’t have, have no idea how to procure it, and once we’ve procured it we have no idea how we’ll destroy it. Later on, once Ron has repented of his apostasy with works, he gets a personalized message from Voldemort. The locket opens, and with the sword of Gryffindor in hand and Harry at a safe distance, the voice sounds: “I have seen your heart, and it is mine.” What follows is a surprisingly risky sequence, one which I’ll grant individual viewers will give individual grace to. Silvery versions of Harry and Hermione emerge from the dark smoke and address Ron in the tones of their voices and in the content of Harmony shippers. We don’t need you, Harry says; who would choose Ron Weasley over Harry Potter, Hermione says. There’s some mostly unclothed necking which follows, which has become sort of notorious. For me this works. It’s so unexpected, and so unapologetically provocative, that it gives the movie a serious jolt. The next scene lets Hermione smack Ron about a little bit, which is both funny and deserved. (Ron’s line about a “little ball of light” which inspires him to come back is goofy-serious enough that Harry suggests to Ron that it should be a larger component of his plan to get back on Hermione’s good side.) Of all the Horcruxes in the two Deathly Hallows movies, this is the one destruction of a Horcrux that really shines. Others are elided thanks to the extraordinary circumstances of their destruction; two of them are a little too cute to live; the decapitation of Nagini by Neville has some panache, but the context of Neville doing the full Ted Allen on the snake takes away some of its power. The destruction of this Horcrux is personal, not professional. Ron, who has always been the third wheel in these adventures, can say now that he’s destroyed a piece of Voldemort’s soul, and can know that Harry means it when he says that he’s never had eyes for Hermione.
Another type of ending worth discussing in this movie are the sendoffs for a number of characters which, not coincidentally, are the hinges which allow those doors to close. Hedwig is killed in flight, which is very sad not least of which because she is a flying kitty. Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson) bites the dust after one last shot of the man on his brilliant reclining broomstick. (That Domnhall Gleeson as Bill reports Mad-Eye’s death makes me wish they’d just given those lines to someone else: what a weird choice.) Rufus Scrimgeour (Bill Nighy, very late to the British actor party), dies offscreen as well, although even in limited scenes, watching the new Prime Minister with the slow voice makes us miss the man a little; his death signals the movement of the Trio from the relative safety of the Burrow to heading out on their own to go Horcrux hunting. Most of all, Dobby’s death is done well. Not only has his presence significantly lightened the movie’s darkest scenes at Malfoy Manor—”Dobby only meant to maim, or severely injure!”—it makes his death all the more moving when it happens. There are an awful lot of people who die for Harry in these movies, as much as people protest that they aren’t dying for him. It’s hard to argue that Dobby doesn’t do just that, and as much good as he’s done, it is painful to watch Harry hold the little martyr in his arms.