The final chapter of the Harry Potter series pulls off quite a feat; admirably carrying the banner for this exceptional franchise while satisfyingly drawing it to a close. This is no small task. It’s been 10 years since we first met Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and followed him into this magical wizarding world. That world seemed a little more magical then, when Harry was eleven and discovered his new surroundings with bright eyes and gasps of wonder. He’s eighteen now and is destined to fight to the death with the dark wizard who seeks to destroy him and all that he loves. Seven previous films have led us down this path, from when the dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) was just a whisper, to when he returned in a weakened state, to now, at full strength, with an army and having taken over the government. He has one last hurdle to jump over and that’s Harry Potter. It’s taken a decade to get us to this point and it’s here now and, for the most part, it doesn’t disappoint.
Having had their friendship put to the test in the previous film, Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are all on the same page now and ready to take down Voldemort which means finding Horcruxes; cursed objects into which Voldemort has stashed away pieces of his soul so that even if the body he currently inhabits is struck down, he may once again return. The number is down to three, and unlike when we last saw them, Harry and company have a pretty good idea where to find them. The first is in the bowels of Gringotts Bank, the most secure wizarding financial institution in the world. Wizarding money is apparently under the purview of goblins like Griphook (Warwick Davis) who has agreed to aid our heroes into the vaults. Davis has two roles in this movie (the other is as a professor at Hogwarts school), and has been the go-to little person for any number of Hollywood dwarves and goblins, I can’t imagine how much time that man has spent in a make-up chair. The break-in is exciting and so is the break-out when the heist is unearthed by the guards and our three must escape on the back of a dragon.
From there it’s back to Hogwarts, where Harry believes he can find another part of his rival’s soul. The school has been taken over by Snape (Alan Rickman), seemingly Voldemort’s minion and the man who killed the previous headmaster, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). After dethroning Snape, the good students of Hogwarts led by Harry and Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) fortify the castle and set up the Götterdämmerung with the oncoming Voldemort. Before the dust settles the Horcruxes will be found and destroyed, many friends will have died, including Harry, others will prove their worth, some will find redemption and Voldemort, (and I hope I’m not spoiling anything about a movie that everyone saw a year ago based on a book that everyone read five years ago) having split his soul into too many pieces, will simply disintegrate.
Any viewer with a working knowledge of hero stories knows that that is where we were headed all along but the movie distinguishes itself in the journey. The battle for Hogwarts is gruesome and I often think of the set dressers, having come to work at this damned castle set for a decade, now getting to trash it, and it does get trashed. Walls crumble, glass shatters, and the poor Quidditch pitch, such a source of fun and enjoyment earlier in the series, does not survive the night. Besides the professors and students, the castle defends itself as scores of statues, once thought inanimate, spring to life to join the fray. Even Dumbledore, who died two movies ago, leaps once more into the breach, giving Harry advice beyond the grave during Harry’s own temporary bout with mortality. A lot of the whys and wherefores are glossed over (there’s a lot about wand loyalty and I’m not entirely clear how Harry was able to be dead and then suddenly not as much) but the movie strikes a confident pose, having us accept the magic, even if it can’t be explained fully, which is, of course, what makes it magic.
Truly, this might be the most quick-paced Potter (it’s also the shortest) which works against director David Yates’ strengths but he is able to turn his sympathetic camera upon Snape, who, at last, becomes a fully realized character.
But we can’t expect much characterization from a movie who’s tagline was “It All Ends Here.” This is a movie about resolution and it proves itself worthy to be the climactic finale of one of the unique franchises in movie history. Here is a series in which the cast has remained nearly virtually in tact over eight films and it’s a cast of almost unprecedented quality featuring a seemingly endless line-up of the finest British actors of the last generation. In addition to the performers I’ve already mentioned the roster further includes Helena Bonham Carter, Kenneth Branagh, Jim Broadbent, John Cleese, Robbie Coltrane, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, John Hurt, Jason Isaacs, Bill Nighy, Gary Oldman, Fiona Shaw, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson and Julie Walters. That’s a most impressive list. It takes a good project to attract names of that quality but it takes luck to discover performers like Radcliffe, Grint and Watson (and also Tom Felton and Matthew Lewis as other students that grew up with Harry) that have turned into actors that prove they’re in the same league. There’s a sense of ownership in the Harry Potter series, favorites get established early on and you can watch them develop and grow-up in front of you. It has some of the feeling of that other great British film series, Michael Apted’s Up Documentaries, which follow a group of kids from the time they were seven, every seven years, watching them mature and establish families or drift apart. There’s a familiarity in the Potterverse that is rare in the world of movies, and rarer still that each episode is pitched at an exceptionally high level. I just don’t know if we’ll see anything quite like it ever again.
While it certainly has the legacy to do so, the last chapter doesn’t fall into a sentimental rolling out of past stars, though it does have an epilogue that is both sweet and silly but it’s impossible not to have a smile on your face while watching it. I remember hearing some snickering at the make-up in this scene in the theater, incredulous viewers who couldn’t accept the actors in their twenties being made-up to look as if they’re pushing forty. It was too unbelievable for them. I don’t know, we’ve all spent ten years watching children shoot beams out of sticks at each other. It’s silly, might as well embrace it.