Dir. David Yates. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson
Hogwarts deserves better than the ending it’s given. In the book as well, the Battle of Hogwarts is a sort of crumpled, bloodstained love letter to the school where the majority of this story has taken place. In some ways that’s even more true in the movie, as little nods to a place like the Chamber of Secrets are moments on screen as opposed to mere references in the novel. The grounds are highlighted more in the movie as well, which is a choice that is basically successful; that little covered bridge, almost always empty and thus a wonderful place to have a thoughtful conversation, is a focal point of the battle just as much as the courtyard or the battlements. Part 2 is surely in an unenviable place, as it must have felt the pressure to give everyone one last look, give each part of the castle a final glance, for this is the end and we won’t have any more of it. (For better or worse, the Fantastic Beasts movies have diverged far enough from this ’90s Wizarding World that this is still true.) Perhaps that is why we get Ron (Grint) and Hermione (Watson) in the Chamber of Secrets, or maybe that’s the impetus to have Neville (Matthew Lewis) and Seamus (Devon Murray) blow up the Deep Conversation Bridge with hundreds of Snatchers aboard. I am terribly afraid that this is why Harry (Radcliffe) and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) fly around clawing at each other and bouncing off the edifice of the castle; is it just one more chance for shingles? Focusing so little on each of these places amounts to never really giving us a sense of any, a cursory recognition that is more handshake than embrace. Only the Room of Requirement, the remnants of a courtyard Cuaron implemented, and weirdly enough, a tower where Harry corners the Grey Lady (Kelly Macdonald) feel like they get the chance to be home.
In Part 1, the deaths that the movie has to work with are handled more or less deftly. The murder of Dobby by Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) is particularly effective. Shot in a way that holds the mystery of whether or not her knife has snuck its way into the house elf until it becomes all too clear that she’s struck her blow, we are given a chance to hope against hope that Dobby will pop back up and quip something goofy at Harry. A huff of breath that flips Bellatrix’s hair up, a crack as we cut to a beach, and ultimately to the beagle-sized being in Harry’s arms: it’s a matter of patience that makes us hurt. That sort of patience is harder to find in Part 2, which has more deaths to get through and less time to do it. (This is why Bellatrix’s death at the hands of Molly Weasley feels so empty. “NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH” has a certain zing that the Internet adopted with open arms, and thus it has to be in the movie; it also takes what, thirty seconds of screen time? What’s the consequence of Bellatrix’s death other than the little smirk Julie Walters musters up? It’s a moment we’re supposed to cheer, but what are we cheering for?) Ranking the most important deaths in this series is a little fraught, but my back of the napkin math suggests that three of the top six deaths of the series happen in this movie: Harry, Voldemort, and Snape (Alan Rickman) all bite the dust, even if Harry is only down for the count for an instant. Harry’s death, as it needs to, gets a long look in the King’s Cross section, reuniting him with Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) for a minute and explaining how our hero is going to return from beyond the veil. The movie does a nice job with this, placing this purgatorial train station in such blinding whites that it almost makes the smudgy charcoals of the past two movies feel warranted.
In truth, Part 2 needs a chance to slow down; the whole movie is such a rush that a chance to reset and take stock is entirely welcome. Dumbledore is also quite welcome by now; having him there to explain things to Harry is comforting because this is about the same point where Dumbledore usually shows up to share some words of wisdom. The difference between this and The Prince’s Tale, a long parenthetical romance, is that this chapter projects calm. Harry is walking and talking, which means that there’s still a chance. No one is alarmed or unsettled; at King’s Cross, of all places, there is a genuine peace. The Prince’s Tale, although it takes us away from the plot of the story, is not peaceful at all, having begun with the unorthodox murder of the latest headmaster by snake. (Let it not be said too loudly, but the process of killing Snape so that Harry can get his hands on this memory was all thumbs in the book, too.) It’s all forgivable, I suppose, because The Prince’s Tale squeezes a complicated pining into the picture that is shades of gray in a sea of black and white. Snape has done wrong. From a tough childhood to the ranks of the Death Eaters, the whole time in love with Lily Evans, he has maneuvered his life in response to that love and, ultimately, to the rejection at the hands of rich, spoiled ur-jock James Potter. That he spends Harry’s time at Hogwarts taking every opportunity to skewer him is not any more in his favor than his continued attentions for a married woman. Yet the seriousness of his love is proved with a single spell, a single doe, and a single word. The movie does well at making this moving, even if it falls a little short—there’s no way to pretend that Rickman is not in his sixties when he’s cradling Lily’s corpse, and it’s so distracting they really should have just thrown the wig on another actor—and on the whole it’s worth the digression.
Part 2 must have these moments because so much of the rest of the movie is beholden to action, and thus to some merely okay special effects. The exception is the raid on Gringotts, which looks very good. (Perhaps this is what Academy members had in mind when they nominated this movie for Best Visual Effects.) The dragon lumbers about realistically, and the way it gropes for freedom and lets out a mighty roar above London is very satisfying. The look of the vaults at Gringotts is just as mysterious as it was the last time we saw them in Sorcerer’s Stone, and richer for the details that are added to them. Here the darkness is not childish hyperbole but a sumptuous choice in cinematography, one that hints at the enigmatic contents of the vaults without trying to do the work of telling us that the world is bad now. Significantly less satisfying are sequences where you can practically see the wires. The Chamber of Secrets, which in the movie bearing that name looked like an old-fashioned set and contained all the romance and bluster thereof, has been reduced to greenscreen. It feels like greenscreen. The Room of Requirement, which has always needed some special effects and set decoration to maintain our interest, is burned out thanks to a tremendous curse. The burning is really where we see the wires; the Trio on brooms is hard to watch, as is Goyle’s fiery demise, less for whether or not we’ll miss ol’ Greg but more for how Temple of Doom it looks.
Part 2 has three major strands to braid in order to end the series: it must handle the death of Voldemort, it must consider the Deathly Hallows, and it must give us some semblance of what Harry will become after a lifetime of trauma and destiny. It does not do a terribly good job of any of them, and once again, this is more a problem in the source material than anything else. Harry’s final showdown with Voldemort, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Given-Any-More-Potato-Chips, is sort of a letdown in both texts, but it’s probably worse in the movie. In the novel, Voldemort just…dies. Harry has to get into some fancy talking about wandlore first, but Voldemort just dies. It’s not exactly a world-shaking ending, but it does have its finger on the pulse of something the series has always known. To combine two British quotes with very different sources: that’s what people do, and the readiness is all. The movie just can’t flop Tom’s corpse on the ground, and so, like a dandelion, he breaks into many pieces and disappears into the wind…and cut. It is a deeply anticlimactic moment, and robbed of the little philosophies of the novel it is a plain and simple letdown. The third strand about Harry’s future is a canary as dead as Voldemort in its coal mine. Before Jo Rowling spun her tombola drum and pulled out Hagrid’s new allegiance to ISIS, there was “Nineteen Years Later,” a segment that ends up in the movie as well with some old age makeup that is both deeply weird and not at all effective. The less we talk about this the better, because it is a truly funky epilogue.
What the movie fouls up, and what the book did exceedingly well, is Harry’s new status as Master of Death. If one is amped up about the death of Voldemort and sees his shadow reign as the central problem of the story, then it makes sense for Harry to snap the Elder Wand in two and throw it into a ravine. But if one is looking at Harry’s maturation as an individual over eight movies, then one must give more weight to his unification of the Deathly Hallows. A greater wizard than himself, Grindelwald, tried. Voldemort, perhaps the most powerful wizard in the history of this world, sidestepped Hallows in favor of Horcruxes. Dumbledore actually managed to unite all three elements for a time. But it is Harry Potter, the boy who lived under the stairs, who was a good if not quite exceptional magician, who achieves what more arrogant and more grandiose men (ahem) have failed to do; he wields them wisely. He uses the Invisibility Cloak like a junkyard tough uses a lead pipe. He uses the Resurrection Stone for comfort before his death. And he refuses to use the Elder Wand after he uses it to defeat Voldemort. In the novel, he decides to fix his broken wand with it and then put it away, forbearing to pick it up again in the hopes that it will mean that the wand’s fabled power will die with him. In the movie, he snaps it in half like Cady Heron with a plastic tiara at the Spring Fling while Ron makes much the same face that Damian did. It’s needlessly dramatic in a movie that has just blown Voldemort’s body over the Scottish countryside and blown up a very nice castle. In its own way, this is the great difference between these decent movies and the adorable books they’re based on. The books give themselves the space to explore further, think more deeply; this movie, like most of the rest of its ilk, would rather chuck than let be.