Thinking back on director Chris Columbus' first charming but parchment-thin entries in the Harry Potter franchise nearly a decade ago, it's hard to believe how very far the series has come. Much like their source material, the films have undergone a remarkable evolution over the years. Under the steady hands of directors Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) and David Yates (Harry Potter and the everything else), the franchise has grown up right along with its millions of ardent fans. Now the endgame is finally here, and viewers who were put off by the last installment's grim tone and plodding pace will be happy to know that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is the most rousingly successful of them all.
DH2 abandons the urban trappings that framed the series' previous installments, taking place almost entirely in the realm of high fantasy. Anything but the most cursory plot summary feels superfluous, as this is certainly not an appropriate platform from which to board the Hogwarts Express; if you haven't cared yet, you won't start now. Picking up immediately after the final moments of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, the opening scenes find Harry, Ron, and Hermione planning what must surely end in disaster: a raid of the goblin bank Gringotts, where they intend to break into Bellatrix Lestrange's vault and steal another horcrux, a magical object in which the villainous, reptilian Lord Voldemort has secreted a part of his diseased soul. Predictably, nothing goes as planned, and the noble but botched raid morphs into a thrilling set-piece that establishes the tone of the film—two-plus hours of breathless chases, epic battles, brilliantly rendered monsters, and spectacular pyrotechnics, punctuated by some of the most moving dramatic beats of the eight-film franchise.
DH2 quickly switches gears from heist flick to war movie, borrowing more, perhaps, from The Longest Day than from the Lord of the Rings films it also channels. Harry and his mates hole up at Hogwarts, which has become the final outpost for the wizards who would overthrow Voldemort, the dark mage who got all this business started by murdering Harry's parents years ago and being an all-around evil bastard whenever the opportunity presents itself. (It presents itself a lot this time around, with actor Ralph Fiennes enjoying some of his most deliriously twisted moments so far.) Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves devote surprisingly little time to exposition, perhaps having exhausted their expository muscles in the brooding, talky, and deliberately-paced DH1.
This film is all about payoff, and not just of the eye-candy sort. As Voldemort and his legions of Death Eaters lay siege to Hogwarts, characters who have bided their time for 10 years finally enjoy their biggest heroic, crowd-pleasing moments. Couples pair off, loose ends are tied up, noble sacrifices are asked and made, and true intentions are revealed. The audience at the preview screening I attended frequently burst into applause. Dudes cried. It's that sort of movie. Perhaps it's not quite as affecting as it was for readers the first time around, but Yates and Kloves, along with a top-notch production team led by cinematographer Eduardo Serra and production designer Stuart Craig, and a pitch-perfect cast of young actors and seasoned British stage and screen veterans, have become remarkably adept at using fresh, striking visuals and brilliant characterizations to reinvent some of Rowling's most effective moments.
If there's a major flaw, it's that the film sometimes seems to overcorrect its course after the exposition-heavy DH1. In spite of its truly epic scale—DH2 contains some of the most breathtaking set-pieces you'll see all summer, and the battle scenes rival their sweeping counterparts in Golden Age Hollywood productions—the film sometimes feels strangely abbreviated. A number of major characters make their final exits in this installment, but their deaths are glossed over in the filmmakers' hurry to get to the next action sequence. It's a rare but jarring wrong note in an otherwise spot-on conclusion.
If DH2 is any indication, the British film industry is poised to overtake Hollywood in its ability to spin the kind of movie magic that defines the summer for many filmgoers. If you're a Harry Potter fan, it'll be tough to imagine a more satisfying conclusion to the series. If you're not, this movie is, all by itself, a reason to become one.