It's a little difficult to believe that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the second to last film in the massively successful Harry Potter franchise, is at all related toHarry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Where that movie, the franchise's first, was filled with wide-eyed wonder, Deathly Hallows is dark and world weary. It's a credit to original author J.K. Rowling and the series varied filmmakers that they've been able to bring the audience to this point.
As the film opens, things do not look good for our heroes. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) still reels from the loss of Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). Hermione (Emma Watson) reluctantly and painfully casts a spell on her parents to make them forget her in order to keep them safe. And Ron (Rupert Grint) is full of apprehension. Things pick up quickly, with Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his Death Eaters launching an attack on Harry the night before his seventeenth birthday. Harry manages to escape, only to discover after a brief respite that the Death Eaters have overtaken both the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts School. Tasked by Dumbledore with the destruction of horcruxes--magical objects in which Voldemort has imbued a part of himself in order that he cannot be killed by a blow to his body alone--Harry, Ron, and Hermione set off alone. They can't trust anyone, and as the going gets tough, it appears the bonds that hold them together might split. Meanwhile, Voldemort, realizing that his wand cannot fully kill Harry, goes searching for a wand rumored to be so powerful that none can stand before its might.
If you haven't seen the previous films (especially the last two), that plot summary will look like so much gibberish. But it's been a long time since the series has catered to neophytes. And in this film especially, which is more about tying up loose ends than anything else (although the introduction of the titular Deathly Hallows is a late in the game addition that feels structurally strange even in the original books), there's hardly a moment spared in reminding the audience of things they're expected to know by now. But for those who've followed the story since the beginning, Deathly Hallows is something of a revelation. Just about every film since The Prisoner of Azkaban has undergone a whittling down process from the original novel. Some of them did so admirably (Order of the Phoenix), others maddeningly (The Goblet of Fire), and yet another confusingly (Half-Blood Prince). But here, with the luxury of two movies at their disposal, director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves are free to stretch out and really explore the material. And oh, do they explore it. This might be the first movie in the franchise where small looks and moments are as important as the big action set pieces. Emma Watson in particular really shines as Hermione.
And in this movie, more than any of the others, the performance of the three leads is of the utmost importance. The vast majority of the film take place with nothing but those three (and sometimes only two). By now, though, the trio know their way around those characters like they do their own homes. Still, that doesn't mean we shouldn't acknowledge the way they've all grown as actors over the years, to the point that they now can offer up nuanced and assured performances.
The picture relies on several big set pieces to give it forward momentum, and Yates makes nary a misstep. In particular is a scene where Ron, Hermione, and Harry, disguised as other wizards, infiltrate the Ministry of Magic and come face to face with their deposed Hogwarts headmaster, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton). Add to that a night battle in the sky with dozens of wizards and a later fight between Ron, Harry, a few Death Eaters, and some surprise additions, and you've got a tidy set of action scenes.
There are two issues with Deathly Hallows. The first is that the narrative requires knowledge of things that occurred in previous books, but may not have happened in the previous movies. This will only be irksome to fans of both the novels and the films, but I suspect it may lead to some twisted logic in the final entry. And that, of course, is the other flaw. Deathly Hallows is half a story, not the whole tale. And while every entry is tied to the others, they all had a proper beginning, middle, and end. In a way, it's kind of like The Empire Strikes Back, with the film ending on an uncertain note, but Empire had character arcs for its major characters. Deathly Hallows feels very much like a roadshow film with an intermission, except we have to wait six or seven months for the intermission to end.
Still, there's a lot to love in this penultimate chapter. Yates has even done away with the crushed, colorless visual palette he employed in his last two outings in the director's chair, much to my relief. If you're already a Harry Potter fan, you're going to see this anyway. And if you're not, you're going to wonder what all the fuss is about. But for those who will be spending their hard-earned cash in the theater, it's comforting to know that the production team have made it worth your while.