“Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic,” Dumbledore tells Harry in the magnificent final installment of the Harry Potter series, but that sentiment doesn’t denigrate screen magic at all. J.K. Rowling’s writing has a visual, cinematic style to match her compelling narrative gifts, and the Potter books and movies have such a graceful, rich symbiosis that while watching the films it’s sometimes hard to say whether I’m recognizing a scene from the novels or remembering it from a movie.
The previous Potter films, all seven of them, have not always been equally good though. Until now, Alfonso Cuaron’s dark, stylish Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was unquestionably and by far the best. David Yates, who has directed every Potter movie since number 5, has too often emphasized soaring action over the human heart.
For Rowling, wizardry is an immensely appealing fantasy and a source of high drama, but it’s also icing: she always makes us care about the magicians, more than the magic, a quality Yates’ films have struggled with. But the finale overcomes all that, as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 brings the series to a nearly flawless close.
Although Harry, Hermione and Ron are recent grads of Hogworts in Deathly Hallows 2, the film treats them as grown-ups at last, a relief from watching Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint - adults, after all - pretending to be children. And this film deftly follows a plot that is more fluid and less intricate than the previous few Potter movies: as the new headmaster of Hogwarts, Severus Snape has turned it into a place filled with Death Eaters, devoted to the dark forces of Voldemort, whom Harry must destroy in order to live.
Ralph Fiennes's snaky, noseless Voldemort may be the evil antagonist, but Alan Rickman’s slithery, black-caped Snape is more central and complex in this grand finale, and Rickman’s masterful performance makes him an endlessly commanding, sinister presence. When Snape addresses a gathering of Hogwarts students, the room is in utter silence and there is not so much as a note of music on the soundtrack; Rickman’s elegant, chillingly precise voice is melody enough. Among the surprises Snape guards until near the end: his long-ago connection to Harry’s mother.
Before Harry and Voldemort arrive at their inevitable one-to-one showdown, every beloved character from the series puts in an appearance, even the dead ones: we glimpse Hagrid, Dumbledore, Sirius Black and Harry’s parents, in scenes that are sweetly emotional but never saccharine. Radcliffe has grown into a serious actor capable of powerful restraint, as he has demonstrated in Equus on Broadway. His controlled performance as Harry is largely responsible for the resonant emotional tone of those scenes.
And happily, the film ends as Rowling’s novel does, flashing ahead 19 years to find Harry and his friends truly grown-up. (You didn’t think Voldemort would win, did you?) It would have been a cheap, easy, all-too-natural movie trick to save that epilogue for another time, but it creates a totally satisfying conclusion.
Yates’ action here is as outsized as ever: swarms of Voldemort’s soldiers head toward Hogwarts, into a battle that mixes old-fashioned crowds with a counterattack of fiery plumes from wizards’ wands and statues come to life. (The march toward Hogwarts is actually a little bit Braveheart. Here’s a link to my list of Other-Movie References in Deathly Hallows 2, with Aliens topping the chart.)
But it’s the screenplay that really soars. Steve Kloves has written all but one of the Potter films, yet this is his sharpest and most literary, mining Rowling’s novels for their vibrant language and color as well as their stories.
As in the novels, the little lessons are practically buried: when Harry saves his enemy Draco Malfoy from a fire, he gains what ordinary humans might call good karma. We never guess how he will be repaid.
The screenplay even includes flashes of self-referential wit. When Hermione says they need a plan to thwart Voldemort, Harry says, “Hermione, when have any of our plans ever worked? We plan, we get there, all hell breaks loose.”
Deathly Hallows 2 is filled with such moments that warmly embrace the entire series. After Harry stumbles into a glowing white room and gets advice from the no-longer-living Dumbledore, he asks if the conversation is real or just happening inside his head. “Of course it’s all happening inside your head, Harry,” Dumbledore says. “Why should that mean it’s not real?”
Like his tribute to words and magic, Dumbledore’s lines speak to the very real, often wise enchantments the imagination can create. Rowling has made the world of Harry Potter a living presence on the pages of her books. She is truly Dickens’ heir; if the names Slytherin and Severus Snape aren’t Dickensian I don’t know what is. The films, including the sublime Deathly Hallows 2, create a world that is recognizably the same but alive and dazzling in its own way, as if seen through a shimmering, magic mirror.