The grand finale of the Harry Potter saga is a sheer force of nature, a rampaging, non-stop windstorm of relentless visuals that carries you through the full emotional spectrum. It is, out of all the Potter films, the first that truly and finally bears the label epic well. The forces of good face off against Voldemort’s Death Eaters as the final battle draws to a close and Hogwarts itself comes under siege by . . . . lots and lots and lots . . . . and lots of Death Eaters. Voldemort possess the unbeatable Elder Wand, and with time running out, Harry must locate and destroy the remaining Horcruxes, thus rendering Voldemort mortal and able to be killed at last.
The film is beautifully shot and put together, and features goodbyes and sendoffs to most of the characters we have seen featured in the last seven films. It was nice to see Part Two take the time to even give call-backs to running jokes in the series, like the pyrotechnic tendencies of Seamus Finnegan, who finally, out of all the films, is given a moment to truly shine. A rare moment of delighted glee crosses Professor McGonagall’s face as she summons the Hogwarts statues to defend the school, telling Flitwick in a giddy voice, “I’ve always wanted to try that spell!” It just made me realize how underutilized many of the secondary characters have been throughout the films. Yet they all get their moment as Harry frantically turns the castle upside down, trying to locate the rest of Voldemort’s hidden Horcruxes scattered throughout the school. Even Filch gets two wonderfully character-driven moments. Snape’s revelation is simply spectacular, and left me breathless and weeping. Yes, weeping. But they were manly man-tears.
In fact, the film is so good that it pains me a great deal to say that in the story department the film totally drops the ball, delivering what is nothing short of a letdown finale between Harry and Voldemort. As I mentioned in my review of Part One, the whole point of the Deathly Hallows is the the choice between submitting to death willingly or seeking to escape it. This choice revolves tightly around Harry’s conflicted quest for Hallows and Horcruxes, drawing into itself Dumbledore’s own story, and it is this central theme that Part One totally ignored, cutting out almost everything concerning Dumbledore and Grindelwald it could afford to lose. This choice suggests to me that out of all the books, screenwriter Steve Kloves understood this one the least. The film seemed reluctant to deal with the issue, and did everything in its power to include only enough to avoid making the film impossible to understand – and basically did so anyway.
This same reluctance is continued in Part Two. Harry does meet Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth, but the scene gives us a bad view of Dumbledore, as the scene should. The trouble is that the film leaves us there, because the heavenly King’s Cross conversation between Harry and Dumbledore includes no resolution to the questions we have about Dumbledore, and so we are left with the idea that Dumbledore is nothing but a lying and manipulative man. This, combined with Gambon’s admittedly rather cold depiction of Dumbledore does little to paint the beloved Headmaster in anything approaching a good light.
And this ends up being the film’s biggest flaw. It is, essentially resolution-less, taking away most of the redemptions and transformations that the book includes. In Part One, there is no resolution with Dudley, the Dursleys simply vanishing without a trace. This trend continues in Part Two, where there is no resolution for the Malfoys, nor for the Dumbledore storyarc. Snape’s is included in full, but this is because it is centrally relevant to understanding the plot.
Most importantly, the resolution between Harry and Voldemort is completely botched. The first seven-eighths of the film is fantastic. It is, taken on the whole, superb until the final confrontation between Voldemort and Harry. This sequence was so totally altered from its original shape as to be unrecognizable, and all for the reason of trying to get more action into the film; in so doing, however, the film tosses to the wind all of the set up for the finale in the book. In the film we are given a lengthy wand duel between Harry and Voldemort, who looses a barrage of Avada Kadavara curses on Harry, who blocks, and they chase each other about the castle for a while, until Harry grabs hold of Voldemort and forcing him to fly around the castle and crash land in the courtyard. None at all in the book, and all of which is incredibly tame in comparison to what we were given in the book, and all of which wouldn’t even work. The Elder Wand belongs to Harry – the moment Voldemort uses it, the spells will rebound. It’s good to know logical consistency was thrown to the wind for the wizard’s equivalent of a James Bond shootout. And in an ironic turn of events, the very alterations the filmmakers did to make the story more exciting are what make it such a dud. I literally felt nothing; I didn’t even care about the fighting. For a film that walks through the spectrum of powerful emotions, the one they decided to end on was . . . no emotion at all.
Ultimately, all this spells the transition of the Deathly Hallows story from Christian to pagan worldviews. In the book, we have the Eschaton, the Final Judgment in story form as Harry and Voldemort square off. It is done in public, in front of everyone, and Voldemort destroys himself. In the film, they are alone. Sorina Higgins sums up the problem nicely:
The public nature of the victory was stripped away: Harry conquered Voldemort in private, just the two of them face-to-face without the crowds. This is a crying shame, for all of those who fought for Harry and for righteousness thus lost the chance to hear the declaration of Snape’s innocence, the justification of the fighting, and the reason Fred, Remus, Tonks, and so many others died. This is also a misreading of artistic trajectories: it places Harry and Voldemort firmly back in nineteenth-century roles of solitary hero and individualistic villain, rather than in the more communal, public, collaborative, crowded arts scene of the twenty-first century. . . . By making the final battle private, the movie made the mistake of turning Harry into just another superhuman hero from a past era, disconnected from his Millenial devotees.
Even worse: all of Dumbledore’s lines about Harry’s blood were removed, as was Harry’s explanation that his own vicarious sacrifice protected his friends from Voldemort’s curses. Harry did not give Voldemort any chance to repent, nor were the Malfoys restored, changing a justly deserved punishment into shallow revenge and removing grace, forgiveness, and restoration from the story. Pushing the revenge theme further, the movie did not show Voldemort’s last killing curse rebounding, nor was it clear what spell Harry was using (it was merely Expelliarmus, the disarming spell, in the book)—so it was not clear whether or not Harry killed Voldemort. It is of the utmost importance, in the text, that he did not. This is what sets Harry apart. This is what defeats his disguises: the fact that he will not kill. He will fight, he will disarm, he will show as much bravery as any warrior, but he will not kill. He will not even kill Voldemort. He will not even defend himself if that means someone else’s death, but will submit to death rather than stoop to killing someone else. And yet, in the film, all appearances suggest that Harry killed Lord Voldemort at last. The movie’s message, then, is clear, and clearly changed: Fight to kill, if you fight for the right.
Most troubling of all was an added line in the King’s Cross scene: indeed, merely an added word. In lines superimposed in the screenplay, Dumbledore tells Harry that “help will be given to those who deserve it.” Deserve it. That simple word “deserve” is worlds away from the morality and—what to call it?—philosophy of Rowling’s books. . . . With that one added line of Dumbledore’s, then, telling Harry he “deserves” help, the makers of the film shifted this epic from a . . . morality tale about grace, forgiveness, and divine intervention to . . . an Ayn Rand tale of a self-made hero hewn from the infallible assertion that he is “special.”
This is a tremendous shame, though I suppose it is understandable that the filmmakers could not comprehend the glory of the meaning of the book. Whether this was done intentionally or accidentally is something we will likely never know. It is also, ultimately, not the important thing to remember about the Potter saga. The film could not remove the central plot elements of Christianity – those will remain forever. The fact that Harry dies and revives in Sorcerer’s Stone after three days will always be there, as will Harry’s slaying of the giant serpent in Chamber of Secrets. His moral fiber in protecting the innocent in the second task in Goblet of Fire; the fact that Voldemort cannot touch him for the sake of the sacrificial blood of Harry’s mother; the reality that Dumbledore offers Draco mercy on the astronomy tower before he is killed in the Half-Blood Prince; the profound truth that Harry will willing walk into the arms of death to protect his friends and defeat Voldemort, then be resurrected and return to deliver justice in Deathly Hallows, Part Two – those will always be there for all to see. As Higgens writes,
Like the ending of one of its great predecessors,The Lord of the Rings, this series ends not with the establishment of some grand new order, but with the restoration of ordinary, affectionate domesticity.
It is this celebration of creation and life that makes the film magnificent; and it is magnificent. It is a flawed vessel, certainly, but one we all ought to be able to enjoy. Highly recommended.
Rating: **** and 1/2 out of *****