Sharp-toothed goblins sit hunched over bank ledgers, casting deviously suspicious glances at anyone who passes before them. Scores of inky black specters, otherwise known as Death Eaters, swarm the skies. Hundreds of identically clad students, all followers of Lord Voldemort, march the corridors of Hogwarts in a proto-fascist nightmare. These are but a few of the strange, otherworldly and sometimes terrifying visions that populate “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” the concluding installment of the eight-part film franchise about a boy wizard with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
As he did in each of the previous three installments, director David Yates fearlessly pushes the proceedings into ever darker and more nerve-jangling terrain, and he races along at a breathless clip. And he reminds us of the magnificent sleight of hand author J.K. Rowling pulled off: What began as a simple, childlike inquiry into the nature of good versus evil gradually revealed itself to be a series of books about death — the challenge of keeping those we’ve lost in our hearts, the unspeakable pain of having to puzzle your way through this mess we call life without your closest champions and loved ones to guide you.
“Deathly Hallows: Part 2” begins where the previous installment left off, with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) grieving over the loss of their beloved elf friend Dobby, racing across the countryside in hopes of collecting “horcruxes” — the hidden pieces of Voldemort’s soul that they must find and destroy in order to triumph over him. There is absolutely nothing, however, in the way of exposition, no “as previously seen in Harry Potter” to allow the audience to find its bearings.
Unlike the first few pictures in the franchise, which erred on the side of explaining just about everything, Yates’ strategy is to throttle forward and demand that the audience keep up. And if some of the particulars of the story remain a little fuzzy — if you don’t remember what the lost diadem is before heading into the theater, the movie sheds only vague light on the matter — the basic thrust of the drama is crystal clear.
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The first part of “Deathly Hallows” (which was broken into two films in order to contain all of the events in Rowling’s 759-page novel) got knocked from some corners for proving so slow and funereal — three kids brooding their way through the woods. Yates answers the detractors almost instantly here, with the single best action sequence in the entire franchise: We watch Hermione transform herself into the evil Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) in order to break into Bellatrix’s vault at the wizard bank Gringotts. Every frame (photographed by Eduardo Serra) is ravishing and rife with surprise, a true tribute to the expansive imaginativeness of the source material.
Of course, it’s the characters we’ve come to care about most, and the busyness of the first hour of “Deathly Hallows: Part 2” almost threatens to obscure them. But in the second hour, Harry fully takes center stage and bravely reckons with his fate. Potter geeks will be particularly gratified to know that Yates has done full justice to the novel’s most moving section, as Harry walks through an enchanted forest, clutching a “Resurrection Stone” in his hand, encountering those he has lost over the years.
There are far too many memorable supporting performances here to cite them all, though special mention must go to Alan Rickman, who has so wittily captured the dual natures of Severus Snape, and who here finally gets the chance to show us what truly has made his character tick. (Is it not high time to reward efforts in this franchise with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination?)
As Harry, Radcliffe does his strongest work yet, touchingly essaying the internal struggle of a young man who never asked for responsibility but knows he can’t cast it aside. Watson and Grint inevitably have a bit less to do, but we nonetheless feel privileged to be in the company of these three actors. The final shot of them as teenagers, with Hogwarts in the backdrop, powerfully brings home the one-of-a-kind achievement of this franchise.
Not all of the movies have been flawless (and the second one was really kind of a dud), but for 10 years and eight films we’ve gotten to watch these young actors grow as people, as performers and as characters. It has been a true coming-of-age saga, in the fullest and most moving sense of the term.