Sunday, July 17, 2011
I really enjoyed the final installment in the Harry Potter film series. I read the book when it was first released, and remember feeling very moved by how J.K. Rowling wrapped up her epic saga. Although the plot details of how Harry and company retrieve the Horcruxes necessary to destroy Voldemort sometimes escaped me—in the film and the book—I enjoyed the mastery of Rowling’s story-telling and the headlong rush of good to triumph over evil.
This final story is very much an action film, especially after the relatively static Part 1, which saw our heroes and heroine mostly killing time in a magical tent, waiting to take their next step. Part 2 begins with Harry and his friends stealing into Gringotts, the bank in which one of the Horcruxes has been hidden in Bellatrix Lestrange’s (Helena Bonham Carter) vault.
The wonderful scene transforms Hermione into Bellatrix so that she can get into the bank. She’s accompanied by Harry and Griphook (Warwick Davis)—the Gringotts goblin banker he’s forced to help him—who are hidden under the famed and powerful invisibility cloak so that they can enter the vault. Filmed from both the disguised Hermoine’s point of view and Harry’s perspective, as he peers about under the cloak, this early scene sets up the suspense and visual verve of the whole film.
(I have to say, though, that my only quarrel with all the Potter films is how they represent the Gringotts bankers. The bank’s goblins sport large hooked noses and large ears, and look like a Nazi stereotype of Jewish financiers. I cringed again in Deathly Hallows Part 2 to see all those rows of Jewish-looking characters sitting on high benches doing their sums as Harry and his friends passed nervously below.)
The film proceeds a bit by-the-numbers, since how it ends is never in question. But director David Yates creates a compelling atmosphere in which Hogwarts has become a gloomy, dismal place, policed by Snape (Alan Rickman), the Dark Arts teacher who’s taken over as Headmaster. The castle is surrounded by the fearsome, disembodied Death Eaters, who hover in the air waiting to attack. As Manohla Dargis noted in her excellent Times review, the film’s color scheme is so monochromatic that it almost appears to have been shot in black and white.
Occasional flashes of color highlight a character or a narrative thread. For instance, the ethereal Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) wears lavender pants and an aqua-print top when she directs Harry to the Ravenclaw ghost who gives him the clue that unlocks the whereabouts of the remaining Horcruxes. Luna stands out as a visual oddity—which also underlines the strangeness of her character—in a scheme in which the other students’ uniforms seem worn and drained of color and life.
I found the destruction of Hogwarts one of the film’s saddest themes. The monumental battle between Harry and Voldemort takes place in and around the school’s grounds. Yates stages their confrontation in a style reminiscent of World War II fighting films. By the end, the once pristine castle, the site of so much pedagogical potential, looks much like images of Berlin after the war. Its walls have fallen into rubble, its ornamentation is destroyed, and the vaulted Great Hall in which the students are sorted into their respective houses has devolved into a make-shift hospital ward, replete with the 1940s-era stretchers onto which the dead and wounded are loaded.
In this gruesome, hopeless scene, Harry struggles valiantly to destroy his nemesis. When it turns out that to do so requires that he destroy a part of himself, he’s forced to confront the piece of Voldemort’s soul that resides within him. The dual nature of Harry's character has always been a key part of the series, as it allows Rowlings to universalize the boy wizard's story. After all, don't we all struggle with evil twins or doppelgangers, if not in quite so spectacular a fashion as Harry? And aren't we all, Rowling suggests, protected from our base natures by those we love?
The Resurrection Stone, which Harry unlocks from the Quidditch snitch near the film’s end, shows him that all those he’s loved and lost remain close to his heart: his mother, Lily, always inspiring; Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), his friend and mentor; and others of the freedom fighters who’ve died in the battle against the Dark Lord surround him to reassure him that his death will be neither painful nor in vain.
Though his mano a mano battle with Voldemort (an increasingly mortal-looking Ralph Fiennes) appears to kill Harry, it turns out their duel has only destroyed the Horcrux his body harbors. The ghost of Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) appears to tell Harry he can choose to return to life. Their conversation takes place in a ghostly train station, in a scene drenched in white light. Although this Heaven Can Wait-style moment is a bit corny, Dumbledore’s blessing sends Harry back to Hogwarts to seal the deal, dispatching with Voldemort and ending as the hero he’s always been destined to be.
And yet there’s no parade for Harry. He returns to Hogwarts’ fold dirty and disheveled, where Rowling refuses to let him be excessively celebrated or overly adored. In fact, the Harry Potter series’ cautious and sober vision of the effects of power is hopeful and relevant in an age when politicians seem to want to exercise it only for its own sake.
The fascism of power-lust is very much part of Rowling’s critique. When Harry has finally dispatched Voldemort, he remains the rightful heir of the elder wand, that supreme symbol of power and might. As Hermione and Ron watch in disbelief, Harry breaks the wand in two and throws the pieces over the precipice of Hogwarts’ bridge. He’s seen power misused enough to know that he wants no part of such a weapon.
The good professors at Hogwarts also relish their opportunity to retrieve a moral, ethical world from the Dark Lord and his minions. Maggie Smith, delectable as Professor Minerva McGonagall, the head of Gryffindor, has a few wonderful scenes once she takes over Hogwarts’ leadership from Snape. She sends into action all the monumental stone warrior figures that decorate the Hogwarts façade, confessing to Mrs. Weasley (Julie Walters) with some glee that she’s always wanted to cast that spell.
Part 2, however, is Harry’s moment. Daniel Radcliffe boasts a five o’clock shadow on his jaw and abs of steel, which are obvious when he removes his shirt to change into dry clothes (Harry, Ron, and Hermione for some reason get drenched a lot in this installment). Radcliffe comports himself admirably as Harry grows into his final burst of self-sacrificing heroism.
Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) admit their long-simmering love for one another in a comic moment after they’ve vanquished an enemy. At the action sequence’s end, they turn to one another impulsively and launch into their first real kiss, after which they laugh with some embarrassment. Yates lightens the moment by satirizing the film cliché; it’s a cheesy popcorn romance moment that has the grace to acknowledge itself as such.
Harry’s similar romantic exchange with Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), his long-time intended, is also treated lightly. When the students all think they’re going to die, exchanging a kiss seems the least these teenaged lovers can do. (Although truth be told, Radcliffe and Wright have less chemistry than Grint and Watson.) Ginny does little more than worry about Harry as he runs off to his next death-defying adventure.
But their bond seems fated, in part, I’d suggest, so that Ron and Harry can be brothers (even if in-law) forever. Their marriages ultimately secure their threesome’s bond; it could be a stretch, but I'd propose this is Rowling’s neat twist on the nature of kinship. Harry Potter doesn't celebrate its couples nearly as much as it honors the deep and lasting relationships among its trio.
After all the sound effects and visual conflagrations, and all the suspense and tension of seeing the plot play itself out, Part 2 does indeed feel cathartic. Many spectators have attested to how sad they are that this film ends the epic series for good. More than one of our students has said that it feels like the end of their childhood.
Apparently Rowlings is filling fans’ endless need with a new web site called Pottermore, in which she intends to “give back” to those who’ve been so dedicated to her character and his exploits. In addition to offering 18,000+ more words about the series’ characters and their backstories, the web site will sell the soon-to-be released Harry Potter e-books directly to fans, insuring that Rowlings’ and her publisher’s fortunes will continue to grow.
But why shouldn’t this woman cash in on Potter mania? The incredibly imaginative, creative series spun a tale intriguing and suspenseful enough to keep people across generations craving more for nearly 14 years.
Although I never enjoyed the films as much as the books on which they’re based, I was moved by watching The Deathly Hallows Part 2. The experience let me release Harry, Hermione, and Ron back into that hallowed place in which they’ll rest in my own imagination.
In the meantime, I enjoyed seeing Daniel Radcliffe in the revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying on Broadway last spring, where he adopted the vibrant, hopeful aspect of the striving young businessman, freed from the darkness that his Potter counterpart carried in his heart for so long. He seems a talented, steady young person, determined to refashion himself as an artist and not just a now-grown boy who once sported a lightning bolt on his forehead.
Emma Watson was impressive from the start as Hermione, the baby-feminist intellectual whose powers of logic and deduction and formidable knowledge saved Harry and Ron’s lives much more than once. In Part 2, Hermione is somewhat overshadowed by Ron, who suddenly seems to have all the good ideas about getting out of scrapes. But Hermione’s pride in Ron is somehow touching.
Watson is a subtle actor, who manages to hang onto a certain presence and screen power regardless of how much she’s actually doing in a scene. She’s also enrolled at Brown—on leave this semester to study at Oxford—and is a self-professed and proud feminist. I hope she continues to be a role model for girls and young women.
I’ve been delighted to play in the Harry Potter sandbox for these many years. It’s given me great pleasure, allowed me to engage in fun conversations about the characters’ relationships and their meanings, and fired my imagination about a magical place and time that always seemed as close to our own as platform 9¾ in King's Cross Station.
The Feminist Spectator