And so the saga of Harry Potter comes to an end — not with a whimper but with a rousing thunderclap of incident, emotion, suspense and old-fashioned movie magic. Ten years and almost 20 hours’ worth of film later, the elaborate story of the boy wizard conceived on the page by author J.K. Rowling and brought to the screen in eight movies by various directors concludes with what is by far the best, most thrilling and moving entry in the series. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is the first Potter picture that plays equally well to fans of the novels and those (like me) who have never read them. This is the first Potter picture in which I wasn’t vaguely confused by what was going on or bored by conversations about people and artifacts I knew nothing about or underwhelmed by the requisite, not-always-grand action climax. This is the first Potter picture that I love.
A big part of the credit for all this goes to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I, which once seemed talky and dull (note to director David Yates: I formally apologize for my lukewarm review). But when you see the new film, you realize how critical Part 1 was in setting up all that business about the Horcruxes (if you have to ask at this point, you have no interest in this series) and deepening the relationships between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). With all that stuff out of the way, Part 2 can concentrate on the confrontation that the entire series has been building toward: A fight to the death between Harry and the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).
But before that happens, the movie gives you one wonderful, rousing sequence after another that build on the groundwork laid by the previous seven films, all of which are paid brief homage. One of the best scenes in Part 2 involves a visit to Gringotts Bank, where the heroes try to fool the all-goblin staff into allowing them into the private vault of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). The safe deposit box turns out to be deep beneath the Earth, requiring a breakneck ride on a mine cart, and guarded by a giant sleeping dragon. The sheer imagination of that scene alone is enough to make the movie worth seeing, and the dark, stark palette used by Yates and cinematographer Eduardo Serra add a layer of indelible storybook beauty. The sequence is worthy of Raiders of the Lost Ark-era Spielberg.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 has plenty more where that scene came from. There’s tremendous joy in seeing Professors McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Flitwick (Warwick Davis) and Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) finally pick up their wands and get busy raining down pain on the bad guys; the always-fascinating Snape (Alan Rickman) reveals yet another facet to his already complicated persona; an assault on Hogwarts by Voldemort’s army is spectacular (and costs the lives of some good guys, their deaths touched on lightly and quickly); and supporting characters such as Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), who has been hovering at the edges since the beginning, or Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), whose presence had faded in the last few movies, are given satisfying resolutions.
In the end, though, this is Harry’s story, with Ron and Hermione playing more of a supporting role this time than usual. We’ve seen these actors grow up in front of our eyes along with their characters (the agent who originally cast them deserves a medal), and that familiarity adds an unusually strong emotional connection with Harry as he fulfills his destiny in a way that is highly surprising. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, like the rest of the films, unavoidably omits events from the books: The Dementors, for example, so prominent in previous films, are practically ignored this time (ironically, this is one of the shortest Potter films in the series; another 10 or 15 minutes would have been most welcome). The movie doesn’t send you out of the theater feeling triumphant or exhilarated, the way Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings did. Instead, the film leaves you immensely happy, satisfied and a little melancholy, reminding you that we’ve taken these characters for granted over the last decade, and now they must go their own way and lead their adult lives. We’ll miss you, Harry. But oh, what a way to go out.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Matthew Lewis, John Hurt.
Director: David Yates.
Screenwriter: Steve Kloves. Based on the novel by J.K. Rowling.
Producer: David Heyman, David Barron, J.K. Rowling.
A Warner Bros. Pictures release. Running time: 130 minutes. Battle violence, some frightening images. Opens at 12:01 a.m. Thursday at area theaters