It ends well. After eight films in 10 years and a cumulative global box-office take of more than $6.3 billion, the most successful franchise in the history of movies comes to an obligatory — and quite satisfying — conclusion in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2."
Fully justifying the decision, once thought purely mercenary, of splitting J.K. Rowling's final book into two parts, this is an exciting and, to put it mildly, massively eventful finale that will grip and greatly please anyone who has been at all a fan of the series up to now. If ever there was a sure thing commercially, this stout farewell is it.
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It has been an extraordinary run, really, marked by careful planning as well as very good luck. When some quick shots at the end remind how incredibly young Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson were when this all started, one marvels that they've all grown up to be as physically plausible for the roles and sufficiently talented as they have. With a parade of wonderful British actors filling exceedingly vivid parts, casting has been the series' most consistently strong suit throughout; remarkably, only one major actor, Richard Harris, died over the course of the decade, and he was undisruptively replaced by Michael Gambon (though regret still lingers that Peter O'Toole wasn't cast as Dumbledore in the first place; was it thought he wouldn't survive this long?).
After Chris Columbus launched the franchise capably but with less than dazzling flair, producer David Heyman smartly chose Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell to stage the next two — the best of the series artistically — then settled on TV director David Yates for the long march to the end. Initially working in what seemed too straightforward and briskly efficient a manner, Yates has finally come into his own in this last installment, orchestrating a massive chessboard of events with impressive finesse and a stronger sense of dramatic composition than he has previously displayed.
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But perhaps the key player all along has been screenwriter Steve Kloves, who made what must have been a vexing decision to put a promising directorial career on hold for more than a decade to write all but one of the Potter episodes (though confessing exhaustion and the need of a break, he later expressed regret over not adapting "The Order of the Phoenix"). Tricky in that so many characters, including quite a few from the past, needed to be shuffled into the dramatic deck without sacrificing forward momentum, this final chapter suggests an even greater-than-usual attention to narrative balance and refinement. Simply put, it's clear the filmmakers felt the responsibility to do this job right, and that they have.
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Of course, "Deathly Hallows Part 2" is all about the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, the ultimate showdown between good and evil, the climax the entire series has built toward from the beginning. With Voldemort wielding the coveted Elder Wand with blinding power even before the Warner Bros. logo appears onscreen, Harry, Ron and Hermione at the outset are still in the wilderness, commanded to find and destroy four remaining Horcruxes (all of which contain fractions of the Dark Lord's soul) and obliged to make a deal with disagreeable goblin Griphook (Warwick Davis) to gain access to Bellatrix Lestrange's bank vault, where one Horcrux might be hidden.
The subsequent break-in involves a wonderful charade in which Hermione disguises herself as Bellatrix (some amusing work from Helena Bonham Carter here) but also a roller-coaster ride that feels like a prototype for a theme-park attraction. This sequence also calls attention to the fact that, after an aborted effort on the previous installment, this is the first Harry Potter film to be released in 3-D. Those with a purist streak will probably wish Warners had left well enough alone and not adopted the fad purely for the extra dollars, as if it needed them. Still, apart from a few isolated effects that look phonier thanks to the extra dimension, the 3-D works pretty well for the many spectacular visual effects as well as with the greater sense of depth with which Yates stages many of his scenes here.
As Harry and his friends converge on Hogwarts — now run by Snape like a gloomy fascist camp and guarded by hovering Death Eaters — an admirably sober, melancholy mood cloaks the proceedings; Aberforth Dumbledore (Ciaran Hinds) details unsavory aspects of his family's early history and portents of what's to come reverberate as Harry and Voldemort increasingly share what's in their minds, while Harry's welcoming committee at school resembles a stalwart bunch of loyal soldiers gathered for a none-too-promising last stand. Among the many who have been recently little seen, the one who most surprisingly rises to the occasion is the largely forgotten Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), whereas Harry's girlfriend Ginny (Bonnie Wright) offers entirely expected solidarity.
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Similarly marginalized in recent years, Maggie Smith's wonderful Minerva McGonagall reasserts herself for this last campaign, helping to create a shield around Hogwarts that will at least temporarily delay Voldemort's army, which has converged on a cliff overlooking the school. As preparations are frantically made for the final battle, time is nonetheless found for crucial narrative trips into the past, including one final and particularly revelatory dive into the pensieve to explore the early relationships among Snape, Harry's mother and Dumbledore, as well as the murders that started it all so many years before.
Even the final wand duel between the evenly matched Harry and Voldemort has its distinct stages that reveal final layers of information. It's also nicely leavened with slashes of humor, leading to a brief coda set 19 years later that, in the way it comes full circle and reconnects with the relative innocence with which the series started, feels just right.
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The squabbling of "Deathly Hallows Part 1" happily a thing of the past, Ron and Hermione lend stalwart support, but the burdens of the consummation lie squarely upon Harry's shoulders and lead one to appreciate Radcliffe's accomplishment here and throughout the series; whatever quibbles and shortcomings have existed in the past, he is Harry, once and for all, and goes out on a high note. A number of departed or otherwise absented characters make brief appearances here as a means of tying things together, enabling such actors as Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall, Miriam Margolyes, Julie Walters and others to make brief curtain calls along with their fellow great pros.
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Technically, nothing has been held back. The eventual sight of Hogwarts as a crumbled ruin is striking, Eduardo Serra's cinematography outclasses what he accomplished the last time out, and some of Nick Dudman's makeup effects — especially with the goblins and a shocking glimpse of a fetal Voldemort — are sensational. Alexandre Desplat's score is arguably the best yet for the series, briefly incorporating echoes of John Williams' original themes while richly boosting the already heightened drama of this sendoff to such a tremendously successful series.
All that's missing is an official “The End” after the final image.