"Hogwarts has changed,” explains a bruised and battered Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) as he welcomes fellow wiz-kids Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) back to the once-illustrious School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
He’s not kidding. From the sinister opening sequence – in which students are marched rank-and-file through a misty courtyard, surrounded by a horde of cloaked Dementors – to the monumental closing battle that reduces it to smouldering rubble, this certainly isn’t the warm, fuzzy home-from-home we’re used to.
An intense siege movie largely set within the school grounds, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 benefits greatly from the return to home turf, boasting an urgency that’s miles away from the meandering, on-the-road adventures of Part 1. It’s also shot with an extraordinary eye for detail, as returning director David Yates revels in revisiting iconic locations from previous instalments – the towering Quidditch stadium, the relic-hiding Room of Requirement, the magnificent Great Hall – before spectacularly blowing the crap out of all of them.
The source of the carnage? Serpentine psycho Lord Voldemort (a deliciously eeeeviil Ralph Fiennes), who’s finally cottoned on that his young nemesis is out to destroy his death-cheating Horcruxes. With three down, three to go, our heroes’ quest inevitably leads them back to Hogwarts, where Harry and co are forced to make their last stand against Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters.
Just like the latter half of JK Rowling’s climactic tome, Yates is left with much to resolve and many loose ends to tie up. Thankfully, he’s up to the task. At little over two hours, Hallows: Part 2 is the shortest film of the series and yet feels like the most cohesive – a pacey, exhilarating and emotionally satisfying final chapter that goes some way to validating the decision to split the book in two.
After a thrilling early set-piece that sees the lead trio breaking into the impenetrable Gringotts bank, it’s pretty much straight into battle. Radcliffe, Watson and Grint all get stuck into the action admirably, but it’s several of the peripheral characters that steal the show here. As the duplicitous Professor Snape, Alan Rickman lends a hefty, heartstring-pulling wallop to a crucial, exposition-heavy flashback. Maggie Smith’s surprisingly badass McGonagall leads the resistance with giddy abandon, while Helena Bonham Carter has a ball impersonating Watson as a polyjuice-disguised Hermione. And then there’s Julie Walters, who boasts the mother of all one-liners…
With so much to get through and so little time, it’s unfortunate (if hardly surprising) that a few series favourites – Jim Broadbent’s bumbling Professor Slughorn, Emma Thompson’s batty Trelawney – are consigned to the background. But it’s a testament to the quality of the filmmaking that such thesps would show up for such little screentime. Yates wisely treats these characters not as cheap cameos, but as natural colour for the movie’s richly populated universe – in Hogwarts' hour of need, why wouldn’t they be there?
The impressively bulging end credits, stuffed with the names of Britain’s finest stage and screen actors, just goes to show that, unlike the Transformers of this world, this is a blockbuster with real clout. Not that it doesn’t compete on a bang-for-buck basis: the dragon-back escape from Gringotts; the Horcrux hunt in the fire-engulfed Room of Hidden Things; Harry and Voldie’s climactic duel… This is filmmaking on a massive scale. It also sees the franchise rediscovering its magical mojo – with enchanted stone soldiers, colossal creatures and spells aplenty, Yates and his crew offer plenty of beautifully crafted creations and accomplished CG to feast our eyes on (dimmed, but not blemished, by the unnecessary 3D conversion).
Spectacle is important, but it’s reassuring to see Yates and stalwart screenwriter Steve Kloves haven’t neglected the smaller moments. The horror of seeing a bloodthirsty werewolf feasting ferociously on the jugular of a young Gryffindor, for example, reminds us what all the fighting is about. This is war – people die, sacrifices are made. But the gloom is permeated by a handful of very heartfelt, very human standouts, be it Ron and Hermione’s first kiss in the Chamber of Secrets or Harry’s fateful forest walk surrounded by his dearest departed.
Although it sticks fairly close to Rowling’s source, some inevitable subplot omissions may leave non-readers in the lurch: the sudden reference to Lupin’s son Teddy; the lack of insight into Dumbledore’s relationship with dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (poor Jamie Campbell Bower, briefly glimpsed in Part 1 as a young Grindelwald, winds up on the cutting room floor).
Yet this remains one of the most accessible Potters – strip away the baggage and you’re left with an epic battle of good versus evil, with enough fist-in-air and lump-in-throat moments to inspire a real sense of occasion. Stubborn Potter-phobes are unlikely to change their minds, but for those who’ve stuck by Harry and pals through 10 years and seven movies, this is a truly fitting end to a much-loved fantasy franchise.
Fusing spectacle and emotion into a thrilling final chapter, director David Yates ensures that the series goes out with a bang. Finales don’t come much grander than this.