Before I tell you about this film and about how much I liked it, I want to say thank you to J.K. Rowling and Warner Brothers for the care and devotion they gave to this extraordinary story. On the page and on the screen, this tale of The Boy Who Lived, from sleeping in a closet under the stairs and his first days at Hogwarts to the final confrontation with He Who Must Not Be Named (or perhaps He Who Must Be Named to be Confronted), it has been genuinely thrilling, deeply moving, and thoroughly satisfying.
There has never been and may never be again a story so electrifying over so many pages that has been so devotedly and expertly translated to the screen, with, remarkably, the same cast throughout (with the exception of the original Dumbledore, the late Richard Harris) to preserve our sense of seamless immersion in its world. Those of us lucky enough to start at the beginning and follow from the publication of the first book in 1998 (1997 in the UK) can measure our own passage of time against the characters’ as Harry, Hermione, Ron, and the rest grew up with never a false step or disappointment to speak of. The world of Harry Potter puts its surprises in a world that is completely believable because it is so thoroughly imagined. Perhaps the movies’ greatest achievement is in matching the visual detail to not just the descriptions in the books but to the narrative richness of a fully-realized world. Even the 3D glasses are Harry-fied.
And now, eight movies later, it takes us back to where it all began. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is The Boy Who Lived. He was just a baby when his parents were killed protecting him from the Dark Lord known as Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) to those brave enough to whisper his name. Most just call him He Who Must Not Be Named or try not to mention him at all. For seven movies, Voldemort has been getting stronger as Harry has been getting older. Now it is time for them to face each other.
The parallels between them are strong. They both have the rare gift of parseltongue, the ability to understand the language of snakes. The wand that chose Harry was the twin of the one used by Voldemort. In this last chapter, Harry finds out that they share more than he knew and that defeating Voldemort will require him to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.
As we learned in the last chapter, in a sense Voldemort has to be killed seven times. To make himself immortal, he has taken pieces of his soul and placed them in seven different objects, each well hidden and well protected. As this film begins, Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) have made some progress but the most difficult are still ahead. The separation of the soul itself is, for want of a better word, de-humanizing, and as a result of this dis-intigration Voldemort is disfigured inside and out, adding to his ruthlessness and power.
Part of the wonder of the books is the way small details that seemed merely deliciously atmospheric in earlier chapters turn out to be essential foundation for what comes now. We learned early in book one that the most impenetrable place on earth was the Gringott’s bank, run by goblins (those of a certain age might remember Jack Benny’s bank which was similarly, if more humorously, secure). Well, now our heroes have to break into the bank’s vaults and how will they do it?
The use of polyjuice potion is another reference to the first book, then an impetuous adventure, now deadly serious. Helena Bonham-Carter’s palpable pleasure in playing the deranged and evil Bellatrix Lestrange (Rowling has a Dickensian way with names) in the previous films benefits from too many years confined (literally) to corseted tea party roles. It is Bellatrix’s vault they must enter, and so here, Bonham-Carter has to turn herself inside out, playing Hermione disguised as Bellatrix. The balance of tension and comedy is exquisitely nerve-wracking.
Again and again, Rowling brings the story back to its origins and so after a movie away from school we return to Hogwarts, where the great battle begins. The more we remember of what we have seen so far, the deeper our understanding, whether it is the satisfaction of seeing something come together we have waited for or the surprise of seeing someone exceed our expectations by being more than we or even they thought possible. Everyone grows up, and we grow along with them.
Director David Yates moves the story smoothly into 3D, though you won’t miss much if you stick with the 2D version. The battle scenes are well staged and the pacing is excellent. If the final chapter got an unexpected and distracting laugh from the audience, it is a small problem in light of the grand sweep of a thoroughly enthralling epic, seamlessly organic, exciting, romantic, funny, and smart, one of the great cinematic achievements of the studio system. Well done, Harry, and a thousand points to Gryffindor.
Parents should know that this film has extended fantasy violence with battle scenes, with many characters injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images, grief and loss, brief strong language, and some kissing.
Family discussion: Why is it important that Harry calls Voldemort “Tom?” Which character makes the most surprising decision? What did it mean when Dumbledore said, “It’s your party?” Which is your favorite of the movies in the series and why?
If you like this, try: the previous Harry Potter films and the books and the Pottermore website