Tuesday, 12 July 2011

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two' review:

Having reviewed the overall excellent 'Deathly Hallows: Part One' last year, there isn't a lot I can write about this final part of the Harry Potter saga without repeating myself. Save for some take it or leave it 3D, it's just as good if not a bit better than that penultimate episode - certainly in terms of action and excitement, with most of the build-up now out of the way. The young actors remain vastly improved under David Yates' direction, as does the whole look and tone of the film which is dark and scary. Scenes of magic and fantasy are again made a thousand times more awe-inspiring by the fact that Yates keeps everything else so grounded - even mundane. Whilst the heroes are now free from the constraints and routines of Hogwarts school, and its campy thespian teachers, allowing them to become more active participants in the unfolding narrative as opposed to awestruck passengers.

In fact, everything seems to fit so well together now that I am even beginning to credit Warner Brothers with some sort of unlikely overall plan behind the series' game of directorial musical chairs. Unlike 'Star Wars' or 'Indiana Jones', the films have grown with their audience and, for those the same approximate age as the heroes, it seems entirely appropriate in retrospect that the brightly coloured, John Williams-scored whimsy of the opening Christopher Columbus episodes has developed into this more macabre and downbeat conclusion. As the stakes have been raised, and the supporting characters have started dying at an exponential rate, so the films have become more complex and interesting.

I don't want to oversell it: this is by no means a perfect movie and I'm still no convert to the "franchise" overall. Some plot developments still don't make a lot of sense and most of the side-quests are resolved in ways which are anti-climactic (notably when Potter's "suicide mission" return to Hogwarts turns out to be a cake walk). Yet it's become impossible to deny that these films have, if only in the final stretch, become way above average summer family movies, at least competent on every level and in some respects approaching exceptional. For instance, Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe is now an intelligent and immensely capable talent, with a deliciously offbeat, quirky sensibility that Hollywood will hopefully make room for (though I suspect otherwise).

Even the gurning Rupert Grint and the perennially huffy Emily Watson are now pretty decent co-stars and it is genuinely moving when their series-spanning romantic sub-plot finally reaches its resolution (with those around me moved to happy tears). The engaging Tom Felton is underused as minor series antagonist Draco Malfoy, but is as interesting and intense as ever when he is on screen, whilst Alan Rickman as Snape, for so long a scenery chewing caricature just "having fun with the role", is a real dramatic force in this installment, with a moving flashback sequence which serves as a rewarding payoff for those (like myself) who never bothered read the books. And speaking of Snape, this film picks up where the last film left off when it comes to potentially frightening young children.

The last installment began with a weeping schoolteacher being tortured and murdered in front of a watching audience of evil wizards - some of whom were members of the school community and parents of Harry's classmates. A few scenes later, Watson's Hermoine was erasing herself from her parents' memory so as to keep them out of trouble. Pretty heavy stuff, though in this respect 'Deathly Hallows: Part Two' arguably ups the ante. One scene in particular sees a wounded character slowly bitten to death by a huge snake, which has a surprisingly visceral impact as we watch the scene unfold from behind frosted glass. And this is what is so good about Yates' Harry Potter films: not that they are dark for darkness's own sake or that they have moved away from a kiddie demographic, but because he realises what most filmmakers don't.

Children are OK with being scared. In fact they seek it out - trying to watch what they aren't supposed to and frightening each other with increasingly depraved stories under the blankets. Children want to go to school the next day and talk about these darker, scarier moments with their friends. I'm not saying that the scare-factor of 'Deathly Hallows: Part Two' won't be too much for some children - and parents will have to be the judge of that, with it rightly given a '12A' certificate - but I'd suspect a lot of 7 or 8 year-olds would find this film thrilling because it doesn't talk down to them. Because it doesn't deny the existence of death and because it actually allows its villain, Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, to be as evil as everybody has spent the previous seven films saying he is.

That said, the film isn't without its quieter moments and even bits of comic relief, with the likes of Maggie Smith given some fairly chortlesome lines. It's genuinely heartening to witness the coming-of-age heroics of the until now faintly pathetic Neville Longbottom (a much improved Matthew Lewis), perhaps Hogwarts' most unlikely champion. Most of the movie is set during an epic battle which brings together great stone golems, haunting wraiths and armies of homicidal mercenaries as one huge set-piece follows another. But whereas these sorts of sections have been a source of great disinterest in earlier installments, Yates has done so well to engage our interest with the protagonists that we genuinely feel invested in what is taking place amid the explosions.

By now the battle lines have been clearly drawn between those of you that love Harry Potter and those of you that wouldn't turn your head to see this latest installment if Warner Brothers projected it onto your bedroom wall. However dismissing 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two' out of hand could mean you miss one of the year's most accomplished summer movies. This is the second part of what is easily the best live-action family film since the first 'Pirates of the Caribbean' almost a decade ago. Even the sentimental and completely superfluous last five minutes can be forgiven as people of the right age (which sadly doesn't include this ageing cynic) will be bidding a bond farewell to characters who've been with them for as long as they can remember. Even for the rest of us this marks the end of an ambitious decade-long cinematic experiment the likes of which we may never see again.

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and will be on general release from July 15th.

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