Monday, August 29, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II Movie Review

It was fairly obviously a cynical ploy to maximize profits that led Warner Bros. executives to split Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two films. One film made from the seventh book in the popular series by J.K. Rowling would have had to top the four hour mark to have even a semblance of coherence, but that hasn’t really stopped the writers and directors of the previous films. Last year we were treated to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I and now this summer the final chapter concluded with Part II.

As the previous film ended on an inconclusive note, this one picks up at the same spot after Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has obtained the Elder Wand from Dumbledore’s (Michael Gambon) grave. As we probably remember, the Elder Wand is one of the three Deathly Hallows that provides the book and film its title. The possessor of this special wand is said to be all powerful. Meanwhile, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his trusted friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), who are inching ever closer to the romantic interlude that’s been coming since the fourth movie, are trying to track down the remaining Horcruxes. These are the objects in which Voldemort has hidden pieces of his soul in order to remain somewhat immortal.

So that’s about all the plot background necessary. Yes, there are a whole lot of incidentals and hugely embellished subplots that play out in the book which are given short shrift and brief mentions in the film, but they’re largely unimportant because this final film, once again directed by David Yates and adapted from the novel by Steve Kloves, devotes about 75 percent of its 130 minutes to the final epic battle at Hogwarts between the Death Eaters (followers of Voldemort) and all the good guys.

That’s virtually all there is to it and you need know little more. Literally all the remaining good witches and wizards gather to defend the school while all the bad ones gather outside and try to break the protective enchantments, then there’s a blood-curdling battle involving sledgehammer-wielding giants, stone statues come to life, and lots and lots of death. Oh yes, this is no longer the innocent kids story it started out as ten years ago. Things have gotten dark and serious and there are things here not intended for young eyes.

Of course, Kloves leaves plenty of room in the screenplay for detailed flashbacks that sum up and explain one character’s motivation throughout the entire series. That would be professor Snape (Alan Rickman, whose lugubrious line readings have become increasingly long and drawn out). He’s been Harry’s number one adversary, as far as adults go, throughout the previous seven films. Harry is out for serious vengeance after Snape killed Dumbledore at the end of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. But through one of Rowling’s convenient inventions, we get to experience Snape’s personal recollections dating all the way back to childhood and understand a little bit of what drives him to have such disdain for Harry.

Snape might be the only character in the entire series with even a modicum of moral complexity. Everyone else is pretty clearly all good or all evil. Take Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), Voldemart’s right-hand woman. She relishes in murder and laughs with pure glee at creating mayhem and torturing people. Voldemort at least has motivation for committing murder – his lust is for power. Lestrange exists only to be evil. Perhaps Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) to some extent exhibits something beyond the black-and-white moral values that Rowling imbues her characters with. He barely shows up in this film except to thwart Harry in one scene. But then Harry, perfectly moral “white hat” that he is, turns back to save Draco’s life at great risk to his own.

What Kloves’ screenplay does well this time out, in conjunction with Yates’ direction, is creating the mood of doom and gloom and establishing the great import of the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort, along with all the ancillary victims of the conflict. The consequences of the war between good and evil have become great and are palpable in this film. There is some real emotion behind some of the performances. During a reprieve from the battle we see the dead and wounded lined up and some of the faces of the dead are recognizable, many of them friends of Harry’s. My main criticism of the handling of this aspect of the story is that the deaths of many important characters are glossed over, handled in too perfunctory a fashion. Yates might have done better to elicit more emotion by lingering over some for more time and allowing more screen time for great actors like Julie Walters, David Thewlis, Jim Broadbent and Maggie Smith, returning as Mrs. Weasley, Remus Lupin, and Professors Slughorn and MacGonagall, respectively.

And I should point out that many of the digitally rendered characters and special effects look better here than they have in many of the previous films and most Hollywood films for that matter. The giants who fight alongside the death eaters look convincing. The effects are a far cry from the laughable work on the troll in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

What’s most distracting about the film is how they found it necessary to squeeze in just about every character that we’ve met throughout the series. So we get brief glimpses of the likes Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson), Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), Filch, Percy Weasley, Cho Chang, Fenrir Greyback, and many others. And we can add to the list of British and Irish actors who’ve been a part of this series Kelly MacDonald who plays the ghost Helena Ravenclaw in one scene and an underused Ciaran Hinds as Aberforth Dumbledore, brother of the late Hogwarts Headmaster. The book provides so much back story for the Dumbledore brothers and their dead sister that for Kloves to have included just a snippet of those details strikes me as little more than a bone thrown to fans of the book, who will lap it up while remember the details while those who never bothered with the books will just be lost in a heap of confusion.

But then that’s what these movies have mostly been about – keeping enough details from the book to make it recognizable for the fans, throwing in secondary details here and there with absolutely no further development on the assumption that the fans will get it. Newcomers have been veritably sidelined from the film series and that’s a shame because there was real potential to make them into something special rather than just visual replicas of the books.

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