Retrospective: Harry Potter – Part 4

For retrospectives on the previous Harry Potter films, here are Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

And so, after a decade’s worth of filmmaking, hundreds of millions of dollars spent, and billions earned, the ultimate verdict on Warner Brothers’ undertaking of this gargantuan project was about to be witnessed. All things considered, I prefer to think of the final two cinematic chapters Harry Potter saga as one film, since they essentially cover the span of a singular narrative as adapted from a 700+ page book. Over the course of its four and a half hours, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows achieves genuine greatness during many of its key moments, both large and small, and although there are a few hiccups along the way, they are relatively minor in comparison to the overall impact of the emotional journey. The two films, in fact, have some of the same issues that are present in Rowling’s final tome, so to a degree those perceived flaws are a result of the (admittedly needed) faithfulness to the text. Nevertheless, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows fits nicely into the type of cinema I love most: the intimate epic, whose visual and aural scale can expand to massive proportions, yet whose heart lies deep within the souls of its characters.

The first standout moment in this behemoth of a film comes at the very beginning. Returning to finish out a saga which he lovingly helped to mature, director David Yates begins Deathly Hallows with a prologue, much as he did with Half-Blood Prince. A pair of determined eyes from the Minister of Magic proclaim that his government remains a beacon of power despite the truth that it is being eaten from the inside out. This bold yet haunting proclamation is followed by a  montage, which visually chronicles Harry, Ron and Hermione as they are forced with the difficult decision of truly leaving behind the world of safety. In all of their previous adventures, the trio had largely been under the protection of the fortress that doubled as the school. In Deathly Hallows, they are forced into the unknown, and are forced to make heartbreaking sacrifices. Nowhere is this more true than in the quietly devastating moment (unseen in the book) where Hermione erases herself from her parents memories in order to protect them from the forces that may be hunting her. Accompanied by Alexandre Desplat’s subtle yet urgent score, the montage serves as a strong emotional beat that simultaneously unites our protagonists’ common purpose and reminds the audience of the stakes at hand.

After some detours at the Weasley’s (including a clever comedic moment involving the polyjuice potion), the trio is literally thrown out into the real world right in the center of London, which eventually leads to one of the entire saga’s best executed comedic sequences. The trio’s heist in the Ministry of Magic is an expertly staged scene of comedic timing. The focus on editing especially allows for the scene to build tension naturally considering the ironic humor of the entire affair. Of course, once things begin to go south narratively, so does the entire tone of the piece as Harry, Ron and Hermione make a desperate attempt to escape from Death Eater Yaxley. The trio are thrown out right in the middle of the forest, and Ron is bleeding profusely. This dose of harsh realism marks an immediate shift in the entire pacing of the film, which had previously been flowing at a steady clip.

As Harry, Ron and Hermione are left to their own devices in the wild, the film becomes protracted, patient, even boring at times. To some, this is a detriment to the film, as a good forty minutes pass with relatively little plot development. However, this deliberately slow pacing is actually one of the most effective passages of Deathly Hallows, as it literally puts the audience into the perspective of the characters, who grow increasingly desperate as their options run thin. These scenes in the wilderness are where David Yates’ insistence on realism in a magical world comes to fruition most. Though he does take the time to revel in some truly remarkable vistas, Yates’ visual focus remains on his characters, who always feel completely incorporated with their larger than life environments. Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint have consistently excelled at showing how tight knit the trio had been in films past, but when they begin to come apart at the threads, we begin to see the actors’ work truly shine. They have finally matured into young adults and the trials they face amongst each other feel palpable and textured. Yates takes another liberty here with Rowling’s narrative, for following Ron’s emotional departure, Harry and Hermione go off to a remote location, and there, Harry comforts Hermione by dancing with her. It’s an unexpected and touching scene, and gives the film a moment of grace before the plot kicks back into gear.

I will say that a primary issue with Deathly Hallows is the fact that it covers a great deal of expositional material, including such crucial aspects as the takeover of the Ministry of Magic, the Horcruxes, the gifts that Dumbledore bequeaths to the trio, Dumbledore’s own history, and of course, the Deathly Hallows for which the film earns its title. Granted, some of these issues parallel the expositional heavy lifting of the novel as well, but at times the narrative does stop right in its tracks in order to have something explained to the audience. However, yet another standout moment takes the form of the downright stunning animated sequence explaining the story of the Hallows themselves. Relying on silhouetted figured to add to the shroud of mystery regarding the story, its a welcome visual departure from the rest of the film. The more I consider it, the more admiration I have for the first part of Deathly Hallows, for it is the most character driven of all the films and ultimately serves as a veritable calm before the relentless storm. Its final heartbreaking moments, however, may be the most emotionally wrenching of the entire saga, if not only for the fate of one character but for its downright jaw dropping photography.

Things escalate at a considerable pace in the second half of Deathly Hallows, as the trio’s mission becomes increasingly urgent following the revelation of Voldemort’s possession of the Elder Wand. An exciting, if ultimately underwhelming heist takes place at Gringotts, for it fails to evoke the same kind of paranoia and unease that the heist in the Ministry of Magic maintained. I will say, however, that dragon guarding the bowels of Gringotts is among the most photorealistic digital creations in the series, and there is a brief moment following the trio’s escape where the dragon takes a deep breath before taking flight and serves as a lovely moment of grace. From there on out, its a relentless rush to the finish, and although parts of the remainder of the film are once again beholden to expositional explanation, the film nonetheless does a fine job of keeping the action moving at a steady clip. On the whole, the action is quite exquisitely conveyed, and where the film could have easily resorted to a typical contemporary war film aesthetic, it instead opts for more classical photography and editing, consistently orienting the audience as to make the chaos of Hogwarts as comprehensible. From the rousing awakening of the statues, to the trio’s race through the mayhem, the action on screen is never incoherent, and Alexandre Desplat’s score also complements it strongly, never opting for bombast, yet consistently supporting it with powerful percussion. Here are two scenes demonstrating this.

To speak of the performances in this final act of the Potter saga, the ones that stand out the most come from Ralph Fiennes and Alan Rickman. Though Fiennes has clearly been relishing his every moment on screen as Voldemort, those moments have been relatively few. Here, however, we see the villain in his true shape, conniving, stealthy, commanding, and deep down inside, terrified. Rickman, who up until this final film had been keeping things solemnly under wraps, truly finds his moment to shine. Granted, his preceding stoicism was a narrative necessity, so Rickman’s outpouring at the most key moments feels both unexpected and deeply moving. The centerpiece of Deathly Hallows‘ second part comes when Harry explores Snape’s memories and discovers his ultimate fate. This here is perhaps the entire saga’s strongest use of montage and visual effects, effortlessly juxtaposing Snape and Harry’s paths throughout the series to where their lives converge and intertwine.

Once this captivating montage concludes, the complete and entire weight of the film falls upon Daniel Radcliffe, and he completely delivers without ever resorting to utter sentimentality. Facing death has been a primary theme of Rowling’s saga from the very beginning, and it reaches its highest point of relevance. Though the scene of Harry parting from Ron and Hermione is not featured in the book, it works fine on its own, considering the ordeals they had faced. An eerie quiet befalls the castle as Harry walks outside and into the forest. This also is a visual feast to behold in regards to Stuart Craig’s remarkable work of tearing down the castle that had become so iconically the home of hundreds for over the course of a decade. By this point, Harry is so close to the brink of death that the photography itself has nearly become monochromatic. The scene of scenes, however, is Harry’s use of the resurrection stone to see his loved ones once more prior to welcoming death with open arms. When he sees his mother, Harry asks “Why are you here?” and she replies “We never left.” This one reply is an entire thesis on death in the world of Harry Potter and the most moving thematic statement Rowling makes: The ones that die don’t leave us completely. The live on inside of us.

From here on out, we arrive at the crux of the battle between Harry and Voldemort, in which Harry seemingly dies, but due to the fact that his blood resides inside of the Dark Lord, coupled with the fact that Harry had mastered all three Deathly Hallows, he was able to transcend death and return to life. This scene in which Harry converses with Dumbledore is appropriately angelic and heavenly, yet it does not quite convey the information quite as succinctly or effectively as the novel. Nevertheless, once Voldemort realizes his folly, we get an epic battle between the two which was actually missing from the book, which ended fairly abruptly to be frank. In the case of the film, despite the fact that we miss out on Harry publicly redeeming Snape, we’re treated with a cinematic smack down worthy of the saga, full of extra mayhem within the school. However, at its highest point of tension, Deathly Hallows falls just short of complete greatness. I know that I try not to quibble with any inconsistencies with the source material, but in the film, though Voldemort intriguingly fades away into dust and we see a glimmer of the boy who was Tom Riddle, nobody save for Harry is there to witness it, and then Harry simply enters the castle as everyone smiles upon him. In Rowling’s book, Voldemort falls to ground with an absolute finality, and the entire surrounding mass of witches and wizards erupt in joy, a truly uplifting and moving moment if ever there was one. The film’s ending is fine, but could have been so much greater. Of course, another minor flaw of Deathly Hallows is its final piece of exposition, explaining Harry’s ownership of the Elder Wand. Its a bit of a useless piece of information, considering Harry’s immediate disposal of it, but does conclude with a classical shot of the trio, finally young adults before having to raise children of their own.

Opinions differ as to the overall effectiveness of the epilogue of Harry Potter but I think it ultimately functions for the other deeply important theme in Rowling’s work which I will get to in a moment. Do the makeup and visual effects work to age our heroes into intrepid moms and pops? To a degree, but not completely, but one cannot doubt the deep nostalgia tinged returned of John Williams triumphant score as another generation sets off to a world that can only be imagined. After so much death, hardship, and growth, we are given the most simple yet completely relevant lesson: Life goes on.

Ultimately, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is largely a triumph in intimate and epic storytelling, for even when it gets weighed down by expositional obligations, it finds a way to continue to move forward. Relaying its themes of life and death with care and precision, Deathly Hallows is as existential a big budget film as Hollywood has ever made, yet remains as realistic, thrilling, and of course, magical as it should be. There was a clear outcry from its hardcore fan base when it was largely snubbed at the Academy Awards, but I posit that if the films had been cut down just by about fifteen minutes each and made into one, they might have stood a much better chance at not only being nominated for, but winning the Best Picture Academy Award. Alas, it did not happen and so the Harry Potter film series went unrewarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Not a worry I say. The true worth of any film will be seen in decades time, and in the case of Harry Potter, the series stands on its own feet rightfully as both a companion to its literary source, and as a true achievement in cinema.

Also, in case you’re wondering where these films stack up for me:

1. Prisoner of Azkaban

2. Deathly Hallows

3. Order of the Phoenix

4. Half-Blood Prince

5. Goblet of Fire

6. Chamber of Secrets

7. Sorcerer’s Stone


~ by romancinema on March 3, 2012.

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