As the beloved Professor Dumbledore tells Harry Potter during their brief encounter in limbo in the final chapter of the film franchise, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, "Of course this is all happening in your head! But that doesn't mean it's not real."
For 14 years, the Harry Potter universe has been utterly real to its worldwide legion of fans as it plays out in the heads of J. K. Rowling's readers (and, to a lesser extent, onscreen)—especially the generation of kids who grew up with the books. It is first and foremost an irresistible world of magical fancy, where young wizards and witches-in-training can blossom in the secure, loving environment of Hogwarts School, while hanging out with an eccentric cast of giants, elves, centaurs, dragons, and comical ghosts.
But as Rowling's book series progressed, Harry's world began to reflect our "real" world in wry, but often unsettling ways. Her magical world became infested with corrupt politicians, tyrannical petty bureaucrats, amoral bankers and tabloid journalists, ineffectual leaders, evil racist hate groups, and factions warring for power. It became a place, much like our own, where the people you love might be flawed and imperfect, and the people you hate may be more sympathetic, noble-hearted and courageous than you can ever know. Above all, it became a place where people of conscience—at any age—might have to face the challenge of giving up their comforts, or pleasures, or possibly even their lives, for the good of the community.
With series veterans David Yates (directing his fourth Potter film) and Steve Kloves (screenwriter on all but one of the films) at the helm, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 does its damnedest to honor all of these subtexts. And considering the enormity of the task, they fare surprisingly well, serving up one of the most thrilling, yet elegiac films in the series. It's not a complete success (fans of the book always despair over characters and subplots left out), but a conscientious mix of action, humor, and emotional backstory will leave most Potter fans fulfilled.
Yates doesn't waste a single frame on explication. Even before the Warner Bros. logo appears, we see evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) steal the powerul Elder Wand—which he believes will make him invincible—from the tomb of deceased headmaster Dumbledore. Then it's back to the seashore, where Dobby, the noble house elf, was buried at the end of DH Part 1. With a brief pit stop to hear the wand maker, Olivander (John Hurt) explain that a wand can switch its allegiance and choose which wizard to follow, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) are off to find and destroy the last of the Horcruxes where Voldemort has hidden bits of his rotting soul to keep himself alive.
Obviously, none but a rabid Potter fan will have a clue what's going on, so if you've never seen a Potter movie before, don't start with this one. But the initiated will adore the wild thrill ride into the underground vaults beneath Gringott's, the goblin bank, and the trio's escape via a giant albino dragon guard, too long shut away from the sun; they break his bonds and ride his spiny back out again on his flight to freedom. Their return to Hogwarts is exhilarating too, even though it's become a gloomy place, surrounded by death-breathing, wraithlike Dementors, with Harry's nemesis, the officious Snape (Alan Rickman) the new headmaster.
Once Harry and the gang are smuggled in, followed by what's left of the resistance army, the Order of the Phoenix, a ferocious professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) puts Snape to flight and takes charge of the school. All the usual suspects are assembled, and even though some have only a line or two of dialogue, it's good to see them all again: crusading Hogwarts students Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), and the rest, along with Order stalwarts Lupin (David Thewlis), Tonks (Natalia Tena), Mr. and Mrs. Weasley (Mark Williams and Julie Walters), and the Weasley twins (James and Oliver Phelps). The stage is set for the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort, to fulfill the prophecy that neither can continue to live as long as the other survives.
When the Hogwartians reject Voldemort's ultimatum to send out Harry or face the consequences, the battle begins; Voldemort (imbued by Fiennes with a creepy, dusty laugh like splintering twigs) and his evil minions march on the school and the night sky is ablaze with dueling curses and fireballs. This is as tedious as most fantasy film battle sequences; the action is often confusing, and there's little time to mourn the characters lost.
But the redemption of Snape, is beautifully handled. In Dumbledore's Pensieve (a device for looking into the past), Harry finally sees Snapes' life story, from wretched boy to betrayed adult, and the unshakeable devotion from which Snape never swerved that bound his life to Harry's. There's no time for Yates to go into as much depth as Rowling did. (In fact, the story of the previous generation—Harry's parents, Lily and James Potter, and Snape, Lupin and Sirius Black—has always gotten regrettably short shrift in the films). But this moving montage of Snape's backstory, threaded into little Harry's backstory (from previous films) brought me closer to tears than any other sequence throughout the series.
One great pleasure of the series, in addition to watching Harry evolve from fledgling "boy wizard" to compassionate hero, has been the emergence of Daniel Radcliffe from cute little kid into an assured young actor of considerable presence. That he can hold the center of a movie so crowded with activity (among so many scene-stealing veterans, like Rickman, Smith, and Helena Bonham-Carter's giggling psycho Bellatrix LeStrange) is a testament to his focus and quiet intensity. He laces Harry's decision to sacrifice himself to save his friends with a heartbreaking mix of trepidation and resolve. His subsequent interlude in limbo with Dumbledore (the irrespressible Michael Gambon), a buoyant moment of affection, humor and solidarity, is a welcome breather for the audience before Harry dives back into the story for the duel with Voldemort that has been his destiny since Book One.
The upside to cutting out all those subplots and backstories is that Yates and Kloves are able to focus and streamline the narrative of this final act, while sticking to the essentials of Rowling's theme: that love, friendship, and loyalty are greater than any other power, magical or otherwise. Deathly Hallows 2 delivers this message with affecting grace and heart.
But, hey, I'd still line up for a movie about Lily and James and Snape. Not to mention the untold story of James, Lupin and Sirius, their shapeshifting pact, and the origin of the Marauder's Map. Rowling has already written it. Hollywood, are you listening?