Monday, July 18, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (David Yates, 2011)

[I guess I should issue a spoiler warning for this review, but honestly, if you've neither read the book nor seen the movie yet are still reading reviews hoping not to be spoiled, what the hell is wrong with you?]

Viewed as a referendum on the Harry Potter film franchise (to say nothing of my childhood), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 is bound to fail. With precious few exceptions, this series has favored exposition over organic growth, deflated climaxes and spotty special effects, and at times this franchise has been so lifeless that Britain's talent pool has been drained to give these films any weight at all. Numerous critics and admirers have remarked upon the franchise's consistency given the number of editors and directors that have taken on the material, but I think that is something of a detriment. Regardless of who's made these films, the studio has made sure that nothing, not even Alfonso Cuaron's "none more black" mise-en-scène, has rocked the boat. Hiring David Yates, a workman whose primary skill has been putting exposed film into cans, seemed the final push to make these movies as crowd-pleasingly safe as possible.

And yet, Deathly Hallows Part 2, like its predecessor, shows Yates not overcoming his flaws but offsetting them with narrow but powerful strengths. The final installment in this film franchise suffers the same overarching, aforementioned issues that plague all these films, and it also suffers from the convolution, calculated audience appeasement and rush-job pacing of Rowling's written conclusion. Yet for once, I can confidently say that few, if any, of the film's major flaws can truly be traced back to Yates, while a great deal of its moments of pure atmosphere and character are specifically the result of his hand.

As he revealed in the last film, Yates works best when he captures communication between characters without using words. His sense of epic action is stodgy and he has no gift for eking anything engaging out of the exposition-heavy dialogue of these movies (and the exposition only compounded in the installments he helmed), but when Yates lets minimal language and tone carry a scene over plodding speeches or finds the intimacy in the bombast of these massive setpieces, he shines brighter than anyone before him. Compare the lifeless exchange between Harry, Ron and Hermione in Bill's cottage to pretty much everything around it in the first 40 minutes to see where Yates' talent truly lies: a haunting opening of dementors hovering over Hogwarts as Snape silently overlooks the youth prison the school has become sent a genuine chill down my spine, and the terse exchange between Harry and the goblin Griphook, conveying menace and urgency instead of spelling out the details, evokes mood from as few words as possible.

These opening 40 minutes may be my favorite run of quality of the film series. The raid on the wizard bank Gringott's is both Yates' finest huge setpiece and a clever way of compartmenatlizing the action to feel big even as it's being more tightly managed, from the mine cart ride through the multiplying objects within Bellatrix Lestrange's vault, making for what feels like a demented Indiana Jones setpiece. Also, letting Helena Bonham Carter act like Emma Watson, including her breathy deliveries and incessant hesitation, was a scream. Yates subsequently gets the characters back to Hogwarts as quickly as possible and even blisters through a protracted moment in the book involving Dumbledore's brother, Aberforth (Ciaran Hinds). I was particularly grateful for the omission of Dumbledore's past, which arbitrarily drags the character through the muck and, worse, kills all momentum to do so. (It doesn't help that Rowling basically makes him into a closeted homosexual Nazi.) There are plenty of moments in this film calculated to raise a cheer, but I never had a bigger urge to clap than when Harry cuts off the coming monologue and says "I'm not interested in what happened between you and your brother."

Notably, the preparations for the final battle, which feature Professor McGonagall finally getting to unleash her pent-up aggression (her giddiness at summoning statues to fight is infectious) and the Order of the Phoenix rallying around Harry, are more interesting than the actual conflict. The ephemeral shield the professors summon to protect the school, a globule of energy that rolls like melting ice cream over the castle, is beautiful, but the actual exchanges of magic when that shield falls feel and look too much like whiz-bang fireworks.

And yet, Yates changes tack after a while, moving from his grandiose, slightly clumsy setpieces to remain with Harry, who moves around the battle to finish his mission to destroy Voldemort's Horcruxes. Yates makes this work a great deal better than Rowling's writing did, with its haphazard oscillation between the full picture and Harry's quest at the expense of connection to either. True, there are some setups here, such as Fred and George confidently awaiting the coming horde, that would telephone incoming tragedy even for those who haven't read the book. Nevertheless, when Yates abandons his futile efforts to be an epic filmmaker, he fantastically mounts the sense of doom and loss hanging over the fight. In the book, the deaths feel somewhat cheap, brought up just to tug at the heartstrings in callously flat terms. Visually, these become elegiac moments of sorrow, the sight of Lupin and Tonks together in death or the Weasleys bewildered in grief over Fred more fundamentally troubling than the book ever let on.

By framing the battle in this manner, Yates magnifies the haunting moments where Harry learns just what he will have to do to defeat Voldemort. With his more broadly foreboding tone, Yates better incorporates the awkwardly placed yet utterly wrenching reveal of Snape's entire motivations as a character, a fractured memoryscape so well handled by Alan Rickman that he makes the sequence, truncated into its most plot-necessary elements, feel as devastating as Rowling's full text. What's more, Radcliffe does some fantastic silent acting as he comes to terms not only with the revelations of Snape's importance to Harry but the final, horrible reveal of the boy's responsibility. That long walk out into the Forbidden Forest to let Voldemort kill him made me shake with hurt and fear, though I knew damn well what would happen. The use of the Resurrection Stone only brought me further to the breaking point.

Moments like these made me wholly forgive the film's flaws. These quiet grace notes offset the obligatory thread resolutions and lopsided pacing to give me all I've ever wanted from these movies, a moment to simply appreciate these characters. Radcliffe, Watson and Grint say everything best when they say nothing at all, and I was infinitely happy to see Matthew Lewis finally get his moment to shine as Neville. Without the St. Mungo's scene from Order of the Phoenix to capture Neville's fears and furies, Lewis got unfairly shafted a few years back, but it is staggering to look at this handsome, convicted man when one thinks of the British-toothed, pudgy weakling we met shamelessly crawling around a train looking for a toad. Now we see a man purged of fear, so defiant he can confront Voldemort without flinching. While Harry is quietly resolving to die for his cause, it is Neville who emerges the action hero.

In the past (and present, and likely future) I've criticized the Harry Potter films for a sense of deflated tension, of perennial anticlimax, yet Yates deliberately films the end with a far more downbeat, human note than the book's epic sweep. Rather than pit Harry against Voldemort with an onlooking crowd waiting to cheer, Yates separates them as the others fight. I'm sure this is indicative of seeing the film on Sunday rather than a midnight Friday showing, but I found it worth noting that my crowd justifiably went nuts over Molly Weasley's big moment and Neville's blow to Nagini, but no one made a sound at the conclusion of Harry's and Voldemort's duel. It's not a moment of victory but a whispered release, a relieving knowledge that it's all over. It's a tone Yates carries into the aftermath, one not of revelry but reflection. Yates even manages to make that god-awful epilogue bearable, cheese, bad makeup and all.

Most importantly, Yates' presentation of the climax shows a clear understanding of the overriding hope and dream of the main characters locked in this epic, fated struggle: normalcy. Rowling quickly subverted the wonder of her own series to refashion the wizarding world into one with the same basic conflicts and human developments as our own, with admittedly mixed results. But if waywardly metaphorical takes on puberty or inevitable romances delayed for plot convenience didn't work, Rowling always had a steady hand on the humility of the Boy Who Lived and how badly he just wanted to get on with his life. I've often wondered why international wizards feature so rarely in this series, with only a cursory mention of continental wizards and no Americans whatsoever; but the thoroughly British sensibility of this series has never been more plainly evident.

Rowling's world is one where a power-regulating bureaucracy is the best form of government, where magic is strengthened by love and empathy, and a quiet, content family life beats saving the world any day, even though one must sacrifice to save that world when it is threatened. Harry Potter has lost numerous loved ones throughout his life, faced death and vanquished evil, but that is all the price for happiness, not heroic triumph. I cannot say this is the best installment of the series—my spare comments for the whole middle act reflect my general lack of enthusiasm for its pacing issues and awkward staging, and Yates bungles Ron and Hermione's kiss—but this is the only film to truly remind me why I fell in love with this world and these characters in the first place. I wanted to see them win not for the thrill of it, but because I felt they deserved happy lives. I didn't feel the same wave of feeling that I did when I first read the book and knew the journey was over, but Deathly Hallows Part 2 made me truly, deeply care about these people for the first time in years, and perhaps it's fitting that my muted, relieved satisfaction matches their own.


  1. I really like the way you've highlighted the various moments in the film that worked for you and tied them into Yates' style of filmmaking. One of the things my friends and I pointed out upon leaving the theatre was how anti-climactic a lot of the action beats seemed, but the quieter character beats amidst the action worked much better - you said it better than we did.

    I'm not sure I agree with you on everything, though - I thought Molly and Bellatrix's fight was one of the most spectacularly unclimactic moments that SHOULD have been epic. I got a thrill from going "ooh, Molly is fighting Bellatrix," but then it was over so quickly and with no stakes. I also felt like the "elegiac moments of sorrow" over Fred, Tonks, Remus, etc. were only meaningful because of what we brought in from the books; but it's been a whle since I read them. Certainly only fans of the series would have any idea who these people are - but I do kind of like that aspect; I like the way the film basically says "whatever, not going to bother catching you up" to anybody who hasn't seen the rest of the series or read the books.

    I did LOVE the opening pan over Hogwarts with the dementors lying silently in wait and Snape overlooking the place, all of McGonagall's moments, and everything with Neville. I thought all that was handled really well. And also the flashback in the pensieve was really well-done, getting across a lot of content in a very short and well-edited way. Overall, a fitting conclusion to what is a far more solid film series than I ever expected this to be.

  2. In fairness, I found the Bellatrix/Molly fight sort of inane and arbitrary in the book, and it was just as terse on the page as it was here. Admittedly, Molly's big line was just silly when actually blurted out, but the conclusion sent a thrill through the crowd, far more than for Voldy's death, which is played on a much quieter note.

    As for Tonks, Remus et al., I get what you're saying, but this was the eighth film. If someone came to see this with no foreknowledge of the books or even movies, honestly I don't know what the hell they're thinking. And I say that as a big proponent of adaptations needing to stand independent of source material. In the book, I found mention of these deaths cheap; they just seemed thrown in there for impact. But seeing Tonk and Remus or Fred lying there worked so much better as a quiet interlude of loss where the book just felt like it was ticking off names. It also helps that the film series has done such a poor job of setting up its own emotional stakes that I'm willing to forgive an awkward play for sympathy when it actually works.