Harry Potter's final bow
When J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" hit bookstores, I had only read the first three of the series -- but I just couldn't help myself.
A few hours after the book went on sale at midnight on July 21, 2007, someone had already posted a detailed synopsis of the novel online. I was fairly certain it would have a happy ending, and that our trio of heroes would all survive, but I needed to know. I skimmed the post and would eventually forget most of it, but one passage struck me and stayed with me.
I got goosebumps just reading the Wikipedia description of the scene involving the ghosts of Harry's parents, Remus Lupin and Sirius Black. Our hero learns he must allow Voldemort to kill him to save the entire wizarding world, and he is prepared for the next world by those who went before him. To this day, I still haven't read "Deathly Hallows" (let alone this actual scene), but this otherwordly meeting became my be-all, end-all of the Harry Potter saga.
It comes as no surprise to me that director David Yates and his actors, particularly Daniel Radcliffe and Gary Oldman, completely nailed that scene in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," the eighth and final film in a franchise that has few (if any) equals. When Sirius Black (Oldman) says he, James and Lily have always been with Harry and points to his godson's heart, my tears started flowing.
I heard a lot of sobbing and sniffling in the theater last night, and rightfully so -- the Potter series is most admirable for keeping its focus squarely on the characters, and this film represents our last visit with them. Yes, the films are full of magical effects and exciting sequences, but those things aren't why a record number of moviegoers are going to pack the multiplexes this weekend.
We go because we want to see Ron and Hermione share a passionate kiss in the Chamber of Secrets. We go because we want to see Minerva McGonagall, in defiance of tyranny, take command of Hogwarts. We go because we want to see Severus Snape's tragic story come full circle. We go because Bellatrix Lestrange deserves what's coming to her. We go because we believe in Neville Longbottom.
Most of all, we go because we all wish to be as brave and loyal as Harry Potter. Daniel Radcliffe is nothing short of perfect in "Part 2," and Warner Brothers owes the courtesy of launching a major Oscar campaign for him come awards season. Radcliffe does so much without words in this film; it's almost as if Radcliffe himself bears the weight of this franchise in the same way that Harry bears the weight of his world's fate. When Harry realizes he has defeated Voldemort, the look of sheer relief on Radcliffe's face is downright breathtaking. I did it, I really did it. Harry defeated Voldemort, Radcliffe shepherded these films to their conclusion. It is a moment we have all earned.
"Deathly Hallows: Part 2" further bolsters my belief that all the best loved, most enduring works of pop culture depend on their characters. Consider: "Harry Potter." "The Lord of the Rings." "Lost." "The Sopranos." "Mad Men." "Seinfeld." "The Simpsons." The original "Star Wars" trilogy. Even "Pirates of the Caribbean." We come back to these seemingly omnipresent properties time and again not because they are cool to look at, or full of pyrotechnics, or jam-packed with jokes. (Not to say those things don't matter.) We come back because we come to think of Gandalf, Hurley, Chewbacca and Jack Sparrow as our friends.
Harry, Ron and Hermione have been moviegoers' friends for the past ten years, and it sure is sad to see them go.
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Severus Snape and the Pensieve
Alan Rickman did so much with so little in the Potter series; I'd be surprised if his total screentime in the eight films exceeds 35 minutes. This, of course, is the point: Snape needs to be menacing, mysterious and unforgettable, yet peripheral. Rickman proved to be the perfect man for the job.
The flashback we've all been waiting for is a gorgeous, wistful sequence in the middle of the film, and wins Snape the sympathies of both Harry and the audience. The scene works in one way J.K. Rowling surely never intended; whether by Rickman's intense performance or Yates and editor Mark Day's manipulation, I came away from the sequence honestly wondering if Snape was Harry's real father.
That is an apocryphal idea, for sure, and I saw one Twitter user calling people "idiots" for even thinking it, but the implication is clearly there. I thought it, a friend who saw the film last night thought it, and many people on Twitter seem to have thought it.
The purists will cry foul, of course, but I think it's a wonderful little twist (intended or not) that adds even more mystery to the character.
Point of view
I've read a few criticisms of the film who take Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves to task for keeping some major deaths off-screen. We see the bodies of Fred Weasley, Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks, but we don't see their final moments. (Similarly, we are only told of Mad-Eye Moody's death in "Part 1.") I think the assumed reasoning behind this is sound -- the film almost exclusively follows Harry, Ron and Hermione, and we experience these deaths as Harry would. (We don't really need to see Lupin and Tonks buy it, since Yates beautifully foreshadows their deaths just as the siege on Hogwarts begins. They reach for each other's hand, but never touch -- it's one of the best shots in the film.)
But the film breaks this "rule," as it were, for Bellatrix Lestrange. Her death at the hands of Molly Weasley -- a satisfying moment that drew the loudest cheers and applause in my screening -- happens away from Harry, Ron and Hermione, and almost feels like an afterthought. The scene is just kind of thrown in there, seemingly unconnected to those that precede and follow it. It would have been so much more satisfying to a moviegoing audience had the confrontation been worked into Harry's narrative somehow.
Just say no to 3D
I saw "Part 2" in 2D, but I don't need to see it in 3D to tell you that version of the film is a waste of money. Wearing 3D glasses inherently darkens the image you're looking at, and "Part 2" is one dark, dark movie. I dare say you won't even be able to make out half of the nighttime siege on Hogwarts with those glasses on.
Even more frustrating is the fact that the film was not shot in 3D, but post-converted in 3D -- but that didn't stop the filmmakers (read: studio executives) from devising shots whose sole purpose is to wow the 3D crowd. Examples: the Gringotts roller coaster, the dragon snapping its jaws while jumping right at the camera, Nagini lunging at the camera.
• As in "Part 1," the score by Alexandre Desplat is unobtrusive and forgettable, except for the haunting cue that opens the film. The epilogue smartly reprises John Williams' iconic themes from "Sorcerer's Stone," but a sloppy edit kinda ruins the end-credits suite. (Luckily, I'm probably the only person on Earth who will care, let alone notice.) Williams' themes from the first film are unforgettable and part of pop culture legend, but I think Nicholas Hooper's score for "Order of the Phoenix" is, overall, the best of the bunch.
• Kelly Macdonald is beautiful and creepy as the Grey Lady. The scene feels unnecessary from a narrative standpoint, but who cares when it's so well-acted and staged?
• Ciaran Hinds, one of my favorite character actors, is all but unrecognizable as Aberforth Dumbledore. I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking it was Michael Gambon underneath all that makeup.
• Helena Bonham Carter does a wonderful job of playing Hermione-as-Bellatrix at Gringotts, even if something about the timing and staging of that scene seems a bit off. Carter, like so many of her castmates, really was the perfect choice to play her character: off-kilter, slightly disgusting, and yet somehow alluring.
• Hermione and Ron's story arc seems to end with the kiss, doesn't it? They almost seem like an afterthought in the later parts of the film, and I wouldn't be surprised if someone unfamiliar with the series seeing this film would think Neville Longbottom is a more important character than they are.
• The most exciting scene in the movie had to be Harry's defiance against Snape, followed by Professor McGonagall taking charge of Hogwarts. That's when I moved to the edge of my seat.
• Nagini's attack on Snape is truly brutal, even though we only half-witness it from behind glass. (You know what they say about leaving things to our imaginations.)
• I don't really know why Harry and Ginny are in love, but I think I'm OK with that. This is not their story. I also don't really know why the Malfoys behave the way they do in this film, though you do get a sense at the end of "Part 1" that they were in over their heads.
• • •
And so another story has come to an end. You've heard all the platitudes about this franchise, and I hardly need to remind you of how beloved and successful it is. The real legacy of "Harry Potter" will come when today's fans share it with their own children, and I'm guessing that tradition will play out for generations and generations.
What I will most take away from the series is a real admiration for Daniel Radcliffe, who took on an enormous amount of pressure at such a young age and emerges as a man in full, ten years later. May he always remember how lucky he is, and how much good came as a result of that luck.