Arts and Culture

Hogwarts Has Closed

'Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows 2' is a fine and fitting farewell.

By Steve Burgess 15 Jul 2011 |

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture every other Friday on The Tyee.

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Deatheaters! The 3D kind!

"Harry Potter is over!"

At the moment the young woman's anguished cry rang through the theatre, it was not exactly true -- in fact, the preview screening had yet to begin. But her point was well taken. Fan excitement at the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2 is surely tempered with a sense of grief. It's been 10 years since the first film, almost 15 since the first book. And now, regardless of who triumphs in the final showdown between the not-quite-so-young wizard and Lord Voldemort, it's goodbye to the whole tricky bunch. There will be weeping, and not just in the private executive bathrooms of Warner Brothers Studios. Tears may well have been shed by those who waited months for this night, only to be seated behind a tall wizard's hat -- or worse, Bellatrix LeStrange hair extensions. Both were present at the screening, plus Quidditch brooms, and even an adorable Hedwig the Owl outfit.

No regrets

It all could have been so much worse. With a little more pandering we might have ended up with an eight-part Dumb and Dumbledore. But no. After some early wobbles, the Potter movies struck out on an increasingly sure-footed path. The philosophy that blockbuster film making can be approached with intelligence and a commitment to quality will, it is to be hoped, leave a legacy. Actor Tim Robbins recently pointed out the obvious about his appearance in the latest Transformers flick -- it's a means of paying the bills. But the Potter series was that rare sort of popular entertainment that top thespian talent could participate in with heads held high.

This is not to overstate the artistic merit of the films -- they never rose to the level of classic cinema. But in these days of lowered expectations, they were a consistently refreshing dose of solid craftsmanship, a testament to the possibilities of mass-marketed culture. And when compared to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy (soon to be pentalogy), the Potter series finishes on a satisfying note. Grieve for the end, but know that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2 will not leave you regretting those 10 years of devotion. Not much, at least.

The slow, lugubrious Deathly Hallows 1 was not a series high point. Parts one and two remind me of Oakland and San Francisco. It seems the Bay Area had a certain quota of bland buildings and infrastructure to take care of and Oakland got all that, leaving Frisco to cherry-pick the good stuff. With Part one having handled all the agonizing self-doubt and wilderness-wandering, Part two gets to have all the fun. A bit too much, on occasion. Part two is the only 3D Potter movie, and your feelings about that may depend on your feeling about the format. As a four-eyes already, I find six eyes too many -- sitting there with lenses piled on lenses, I feel like I'm in a remake of The Fly. And 3D technology has not overcome the darkness problem. Take off the glasses and everything brightens up. Part two even indulges in that hoariest of 3D traditions, the roller coaster ride. But Deathly Hallows 2 is still a better 3D product than recent efforts like Thor. Hovering Deatheaters make for a particularly spooky 3D sight.

Voila Voldemort!

As the film opens the narrative is clear -- Harry, Hermione, and Ron (Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint) must find and destroy the horcruxes that are in fact pieces of Lord Voldemort's soul. He-Who-Cannot-Sneeze finally comes into his own in the final film, moving from off-screen threat to central presence. I have never felt that Voldemort was a strong suit in the Potter tales -- he has frequently seemed like a bland bouillabaisse of stock villainy. But finally given room to stretch, Ralph Fiennes does a fine job of inhabiting the former Tom Riddle, a powerful psychopath who is not just dangerous but dangerously insecure.

A massive showdown at Hogwarts cannot help but remind fantasy fans of similar battle scenes in Return of the King. It's impressive, but I wish director Peter Yates had offered a clearer battle narrative rather than just offering a big spectacle (in particular, I wanted to know how they dealt with the big spiders. Surely someone knows a humungous wasp spell?)

Epic battles aside, the emotional heart of the story belongs to the enigmatic Severus Snape. Not for nothing is the new Hogwarts headmaster the first person shown on screen. Snape has long been the second riddle in the story, his motivations briefly flashing and then disappearing throughout the series. Exposition when it comes is perhaps a little hurried -- I didn't catch everything, and for someone who has successfully avoided hearing book-based spoilers, I wished for once that I could go back and re-read a paragraph or two. At least one other aspect of the resolution (worry not, no spoilers here) seemed to me a little fudged. While Rowling's tale became progressively darker as it went along, it might profitably have gone darker still.

But these are quibbles. From Twin Peaks to Lost, many a great series has fumbled the ball while crossing the goal line. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2 does not. No sour aftertaste here -- fans will be left only with the satisfaction of seeing a job well done. And if Warner Brothers has its way, Hogwarts: the Next Generation.  [Tyee]

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