Building upon a good review of the Deathly Hallows

Conclusions to fantasy epics and quest narratives pose a diabolical problem for their creators, one that calls to mind a remark I once read in a journal by Edmund Wilson, one of the 20th century's greatest cultural critics. Late in his life Wilson had decided to give up reading history, he wrote, because "I know the kinds of things that happen." Epic fantasy is, if possible, even more familiar than history, in that we know exactly what will happen: Good will triumph over evil at great price, but only after the hero endures a crisis of self-doubt and agrees to sacrifice himself for the greater good. So the execution of such a conclusion becomes largely a technical matter, a matter of How more than What, and still less Why. In the case of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," a movie with no beginning and no middle but two-plus hours of thundering, momentous ending, all of this is carried to a comical extreme.

I'm not trying to wage some kind of King Canute battle against the tide of approbation for this remarkable series and its final chapter, honest. I am suggesting that we're all congratulating the filmmakers for not having screwed the whole thing up too badly. (Which is something to be celebrated: Consider the ever-dwindling "Chronicles of Narnia" series, or the disastrous efforts to turn Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" and Lemony Snicket's "Series of Unfortunate Events" into movie franchises.) Director David Yates, screenwriter Steve Kloves and their formerly young cast -- Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson began this enterprise as schoolchildren and now seem ready for divorces and rehab clinics -- bring the Potter cycle to rest with a great cinematic clash of cymbals (and symbols). "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" is a grave and violent picture built around the large-scale destruction of Hogwarts, Harry's beloved alma mater, and the final confrontation between Harry (Radcliffe) and the reptile-headed Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), who are linked to each other in ways they don't quite understand.

As he began to do in "Deathly Hallows: Part 1," Yates deliberately recalls the inspirational movies about the blitz of London and the lonely courage with which the British faced Hitler in the dark early years of World War II. I don't know whether J.K. Rowling has ever discussed the Battle of Britain as an influence on her fantasy universe, but she's precisely the right age to have been raised on such national mythological tales of Churchill-era nobility and sacrifice. While most of "Deathly Hallows: Part 2" is set in and around the climactic siege of Hogwarts -- in which, yes, some beloved Potterworld personages will die -- we also see Harry, red-headed Ron (Grint) and shockingly grown-up Hermione (Watson, of course, but in this sequence also played by Helena Bonham Carter, and don't make me explain) stage a daring raid on the Gringotts Wizarding Bank, which ends with an abused captive dragon totally destroying the place. Any consonance with current events, which renders it especially satisfying to witness a bank reduced to rubble, is presumably coincidental. (As we now know, many financial institutions in the Muggle universe are also run by greedy and untrustworthy goblins.)

If the Gringotts raid is one of the Potter series' most effective uses of large-scale CGI effects, I found much of the final battle at Hogwarts, including the O.K. Corral showdown between Harry and Voldemort, disappointingly generic. Oh, I don't mean that it's boring to sit through, exactly. There's a whole lot of spell-casting and Death-Eating and exploding Gothic architecture and Fiennes' lizard-man Voldemort howling in pain and pointlessly murdering underlings as Harry and friends gradually discover and destroy the Horcruxes that contain fragments of his soul. (I can't stop myself: The next-to-last Horcrux is inside ... mmrp! Stifled by the Spoiler Cops, just in time.) Yates and cinematographer Eduardo Serra do a nice job of keeping the viewer oriented in space and time, no mean feat when space is an imaginary digital artifact and time is completely elastic. There's a lovely and crucial flashback sequence into the memories of über-Goth potions expert turned Hogwarts headmaster Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) -- for my money the most compelling character in the whole series -- whose long-running and ambiguous role in the Potter mythos is finally revealed.

Along with Rickman, numerous other beloved players make final cameos, making this peculiar film -- which is simultaneously too short and too long -- feel an awful lot like an extended curtain call. Maggie Smith as Prof. McGonagall and Jim Broadbent as Prof. Slughorn, Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, Tom Felton as the chastened Draco Malfoy, Bonham Carter as the adorably evil Bellatrix Lestrange, David Thewlis as lycanthrope Remus Lupin and Evanna Lynch as New Agey Celtic seer Luna Lovegood all get a few seconds of screen time. So do various departed characters, including Harry's long-dead parents, Gary Oldman as Sirius Black and of course Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore, who appears in a misty-moisty afterlife scene where Yates simultaneously manages to screw up a crucial plot point and render the spiritual underpinnings of the entire Potter franchise as total bollocks. (We also meet Dumbledore's grouchy brother, nicely played by Ciarán Hinds, a personal favorite.) And I guess Harry's so-called paramour Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) makes an appearance, but not so you'd notice it. (Potter fans hate me for this one, but the submerged sexual tension between Harry, Hermione and Ron is a central element of this universe, and one Rowling herself seems barely aware of. Ginny is a transparent and inadequate attempt to defuse it.)

What bugs me about "Deathly Hallows: Part 2" may be an inevitable consequence of the fact that Yates and Kloves, previous directors Chris Columbus, Mike Newell and Alfonso Cuarón, and everybody else who's worked on this amazing 14-year, eight-film odyssey has had to serve so many masters. Loyalty to both the letter and spirit of Rowling's books was more important than it almost ever is in a Hollywood production, because the universe of Potter fandom is so large, so well-organized and so vocal. But the filmmakers also had to appeal to moviegoers who hadn't read the books and were absorbing the whole story on-screen, as well as casual viewers who might dip in and out, depending on reviews or what their friends said, in search of an exciting yarn but without much caring about the history of the Diadem of Ravenclaw or the backstage intrigue among the Hogwarts faculty.

Viewed in that light, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" is an adequate and often artful exercise in checking off boxes. If you haven't imbibed a minimum of four or five other Potter books and/or movies, including "Deathly Hallows: Part 1," then the exposition surrounding the action sequences will be total gibberish and you shouldn't even bother. (By the way, I saw it in Imax 3-D, and unless you can't stop yourself don't spend the extra money.) This is almost entirely a movie for the Potter fan base, which may have been the only possible outcome in adapting Rowling's torrents of verbiage, dense plotting and encyclopedic arcana. But this final installment, driven far less by acting and characterization than any of the preceding seven, fails the Peter Jackson test of becoming an affecting and absorbing work on its own terms.

The "O Children" sequence in "Deathly Hallows: Part 1," and indeed the entire haunted, lonely middle section of that vastly superior movie, have stayed with me powerfully. Hours after seeing this one, I don't look back on it with any emotion, or even much in the way of sense-memory. Radcliffe as Harry, and even more so Fiennes as the wounded Voldemort, who feels victory escaping his grasp as evil wizards always will, are both splendid. But the final confrontation between these intertwined geniuses, at least as we see it here, has no moral or intellectual heft; it's a lightning-bolt battle out of a 1980s "Doctor Strange" comic. (I'm not saying that's the worst thing in the world.) Seconds later, I was out on the sidewalk in front of the theater, feeling a little baffled and irritated: Wait, Dumbledore said what to Snape and what to Harry? Voldemort is incapable of killing Harry because ... why, exactly? Which Horcrux is the giant snake and which one is the Magic Cup of H.R. Pufnstuf? What the Sam Hill are the Deathly Hallows again, and what do they have to do with anything? (Answer: They don't.)

So ends this enormously important, and enormously extended, chapter of pop culture, with a combination of bang and whimper. Nothing quite like this series has ever been tried before in cinema history, and as I wrote last year, following the central trio of Radcliffe, Grint and Watson through the aging process has itself forced the movies to confront Rowling's central themes, which I take to be "the painful transition from childhood to adulthood, the loss of parents and loved ones, the first intimations of personal mortality." For better or worse, Rowling's books and the hit-and-miss movies based on them have reshaped not just the marketplace for fiction and film but the contemporary cultural imagination, re-establishing fantasy as the central narrative mode (arguably for the first time since the Middle Ages). I suspect that Rowling will remain popular for a long time while the films fade a lot more rapidly into the background. But we have only begun to live in the world they made. (Andrew O’Hehir, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2,” Salon, 13 July 2011)

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Alas ... fantasy

Churchill-as-heroic-leader is the kind of fantasy that was being chisseled away at in more post modern-centered departments of universities. It's admirable to be willing to gout impossible leaders, to not need to so much inflate reality, even if in "your" deconstruction you're still kinda neglecting it; and I think it's THIS firm "medieval" retreat back to fantasy that I am most apprehensive of. It's what the genre had least need of: sign that when it finally takes off and overtakes the literary, the primarily reality-avoidist geeks are surely in charge. This whole G.R.R Martin thing is probably the same thing: pasture-inclined, actually knowing older critics ascenting to legitimize a genre that looks to coast them through the rest of the way with a steady stream of discord-obliterating lies. It has momentum, is constituted not to confront, seems legitimate in harkening back to an unfairly neglected, inherently meaningful manner of story-telling that ruled before bourgeois prefences staked their claim, and is well-written enough to cover your ass. And that's apparently plenty.

Struck me as a very astute review. I'm not sure if seeing this will do me much good, and might just keep aside. It's nostalgia for a time that nurtured the rebellious, irreverant period that enabled so many striking, baby-boomer greats (I agree about Snape), without a stir to reclaim it (the "next generation" seem to me, mini-mes, at best: I wish them well, but I wish people would stop just complementing, encouraging them -- trust me, they'll all soon be drawn to rage, alchohol, and flights from reality; they're ALREADY war-torn, and yet they'll still be amongst the BEST of their generation). It looks to be mostly for the lost.

I'm not seeing Hobbit either. LOTR had many of the qualities I look for, but Jackson doesn't have it to stay Paul Krugman-like on course. It'll be lapse, not prelude. Maybe at some point at Salon we can put aside the primarily you-pleasing Gaimans and Harry Potters, and go with some Ursula LeGuins and Gene Wolfes and Michael Bishops-- those who'd recognize all that was going on between their characters, and mostly motion you to really see and understand it; fantasy writers who are really at base mostly reality OBSERVERS, not escapism ENABLERS. If not, then how about we just tunnel our way further into the McEwans, Kingsolvers, and Updikes.

Let us not put too fine a point on it

But the neomedieval or Gothic Revival aesthetic began in the 19th century - in England in particular - and has not really abated since then, despite every modernist claim to cultural rupture & transgression. Gothicism is an incredibly powerful, universal language. Consciously or not, every generation grapples with The Gothic in it's own way (just as they will with classicism.) There is a strong argument to be made that it has not entirely abated at any time since the Middle Ages, and realism, itself a fantastic kind of stylization (that I like very much) is the anomaly.

I think it's important to point out that the reason the 19th century Gothic revivalists were so ga-ga about the Medieval was precisely for the purpose of establishing cultural continuity & rebuking the idea of neoclassical, post-medieval rupture. They meant nothing less than to heal the chain of historical continuity that had been (and remains) broken. You don't have to like medieval art to appreciate the wisdom of this, and the danger of cultural amnesia and hubris that makes a nostalgic, trite fetish of our shared past.

Having said that, these Potter movies barely scratch the surface of medieval aesthetics & it takes disciplined willpower to divine the medieval experience of Art. Maybe if as a culture we dared to stop talking about budgets & deficits & money 24-7, we would be more worthy of the privilege of communing with our ancestors. (Del Rio)

@del rio

Will you make your point more strongly why we shouldn't want to disconnect ourselves entire from a time of lords and peasants, of knights, hacking one-another to death, for the smallest of slights? Perhaps healing begins only once you've made the source of pain go away, when you've developed the courage to balk expectations and simply walk away.

We needn't look to the past and see relatives, you know. I simply see different people -- almost different things, and not ancestral ones; ones I wish knew the self-aware states possible to many of us, proved actually worthy of remembering, emulating, commuting with, without this really amounting to wrong-headed fancy, a regreful waste of time.

It may be that it requires "disciplined willpower to divine the medieval experience of Art," but it surely more requires an evolved ability to see things straight, and, in my judgment, an ability to access mental states that are significantly inferior to your own; and I'm not sure the two can go together. It might well be impossible to be a Medieval historian (or historian of the Medieval Ages, if you prefer) -- what a fascinating, and quite possibly true, thought!

There seems to be an underlying

cynicism in Mr. O'Hehir's review and in the whole genre of fantasy.

The fact is there has been no serious public scandal surrounding the cast (Mr. Radcliffe's recent admission about his issues was not dragged through the public eye), that all the young actors in the film seem to have matured as a group as pretty straight forward and regular people with the potential to become skilled in their craft or move on to other pursuits.

These films are a progression as the books are.

As for what is more entertaining, a repeated group of adults getting drunk and losing consciousness in movie after movie or a group of films that strung together that tell a story... well, juvenalia has nothing to do with age now does it.

Nothing would have made the reviewer enjoy this movie except the end credits. (Helpmehannah)

@helpmehannah

Re: The fact is there has been no serious public scandal surrounding the cast (Mr. Radcliffe's recent admission about his issues was not dragged through the public eye), that all the young actors in the film seem to have matured as a group as pretty straight forward and regular people with the potential to become skilled in their craft or move on to other pursuits.

These films are a progression as the books are.

As for what is more entertaining, a repeated group of adults getting drunk and losing consciousness in movie after movie or a group of films that strung together that tell a story... well, juvenalia has nothing to do with age now does it.

The kids have "matured" into a time when they will spend the rest of their lives as royalty, where the public will mostly constrain themselves to see royalty as regal-but-plain stalwarts, and where royalty will consent to make it very easy to imagine themselves this way -- not insisting on dragging their whatever erroneous misadventures/wanderings through the public eye. At some level we understand that behind the scenes they're uncentered, skitterish, unstable, fully-dependent and mostly-infantile catastrophic messes, but they are constituted to stand erect and do what is expected of them while in public, and to do what they can to at least attempt to blanche/fagellate anything interesting and unexpected out of their personal lives as well.

Their parents got to be individuals and free and genuinely interesting -- even if now mostly just seen as pompous, absurd, scene-crowding/stealing douches; these kids are the relief from true accomplishment and will only be the publics'. I actually doubt they'll divorce, but even if they do they'll consent to make it seem a private matter and a themselves-discrediting shame that should be swept as soon as possible under the table, rather than the baby-boomer style of being unleashed and alive to the world again.

If it means sensing that the future generation is going to go along life as if following a script they'll never know the stuff to deter from -- group suffering, heroes arising from the ranks, toppling of all-powerful evil menace to gift a subsequent generation with the chance of a better world -- then a strung-together, well-told story can indeed be depressing. "You'll" simply do as directed, and therefore never really nurture your own story. You had a right to that, as much as anyone. Hope you get a do-over.

pretty brainy responses for a kids movie!

I love to see folks exercising their grad school muscles.

O Hehir does have knee-jerk disdain for the genre, with some good reason: when Hollywood processes books they always come out black and white-- a mirror of events processed through our pathetic media.

HPATDH2 displays the book's major plot weaknesses-- so much depends on random chance, like it happening to be Draco's mom who examines Harry, or Harry stumbling on Shape in time to get his all-important memories.

I'm not impressed with Daniel Radcliffe-- he just doesn't seem to have much character. Sorry, I said it. The parts of the movie that shone for me were when the grand old actors roused to the defense of the castle-- the kid's parts were like Gap ads in comparison.

I don't know what O Hehir is talking about in the afterlife scene-- that seemed very close to the book, and I thought explained things competently.

Oh, and Ron looks like a total schlub at the end-- which, also taken without alteration from the book, always struck me as a parent-centered anticlimax.

But there it is-- we may grow up in a magical world, but sooner or later we turn into boring grownups-- so don't worry, Andrew! (Shepa Dorje)

@Shepa Dorje

This doesn't help: "pretty brainy responses for a kids movie!

I love to see folks exercising their grad school muscles."

This does: "HPATDH2 displays the book's major plot weaknesses-- so much depends on random chance, like it happening to be Draco's mom who examines Harry, or Harry stumbling on Shape in time to get his all-important memories.

I'm not impressed with Daniel Radcliffe-- he just doesn't seem to have much character. Sorry, I said it. The parts of the movie that shone for me were when the grand old actors roused to the defense of the castle-- the kid's parts were like Gap ads in comparison.

Link: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2": An action-packed curtain call (Salon)

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