I suppose I’ve come around to David Yates. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of Prisoner of Azkaban probably will always be remembered as the most artful Harry Potter movie (and I wouldn’t dispute that), but Yates’s work on the final four films of the series is far from second-rate. Yes, Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, and Deathly Hallows, Part 1 and 2 are somewhat uneven, occasionally lurching forward when they should pause and dragging when they should race ahead; they also can set a mood, build a riveting action sequence, and create a perfect, evocative image. They are, in short, cinematic, not just perfunctory dramatizations of the books—which, frankly, is probably all they needed to be to make untold billions of dollars. Yet Yates clearly aspired to more than that, and it shows, even in the weaker moments. I don’t love the movies, but since Yates took over, they’ve consistently been much better than I expect.
Part 2 of Deathly Hallows picks up immediately after the first: Dobby has just died in the escape from Malfoy Manor, and our runaway trio has inferred from the questions Bellatrix Lestrange asked in her brutal interrogation of Hermione that one or more of Voldemort’s elusive Horcruxes may be stashed in the Death Eater’s vault at Gringotts. Thus they need to break into the wizards’ bank—a daunting proposition, and almost as dangerous a destination as their next stop, Hogwarts, which Harry believes may house another one of the Horcruxes, the evil charms that render the Dark Lord virtually immortal.
And that, essentially, is the movie: the Gringotts break-in and the inevitable battle at Hogwarts, with all the panicky sprints to and from the secret rooms of the school that that entails. Compared to the meandering, mopey Part 1 (which I did enjoy), Part 2 is virtually wall-to-wall action—which is not to say that it doesn’t have a heart beating in the midst of all the explosions and wand-zapping. After all, the Hogwarts battle represents the culmination of much of the character and thematic development: sweet, singsong-voiced Luna finally demands that she, too, should be heard right now; Harry demonstrates just how willing he is to turn the other cheek; Mrs. Weasley underlines the series’s apparent belief that absolutely nothing is more powerful than a mother’s love; Snape reveals, even in death, his true, pure motivation; Neville graduates from overlooked occasional sidekick to inspiring, Son of Gryffindor hero. At the opening weekend show I attended, you could tell that people were waiting for those moments, waiting to cheer Mrs. Weasley’s triumph over Bellatrix, and Neville’s slaying of Nagini, and Hermione and Ron’s first passionate kiss. It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that, for the most part, such moments still feel organic, well staged and fervently acted.
The child actors chosen more than a decade ago, as much for their looks as for anything else, have matured into strong young actors. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint embody Harry, Hermione, and Ron so completely—and have such great chemistry together—that one half forgets that they’re playing characters. Tom Felton has given Draco an increasingly rattled sense of despair, and Evanna Lynch conveys not just Luna’s overt loopiness but also her underlying self-possession and her perceptive, insightful mind. Matthew Lewis, meanwhile, wins the surprisingly-graceful-exit-from-puberty award, having somehow grown from a chubby, ungainly boy into a lanky, oddly handsome man while still, thankfully, retaining Neville’s bumbling, bighearted warmth.
I’d like to think the accomplished adult cast has something to do with younger actors’ development. Alan Rickman, for one, has always been a highlight of the series, portraying Snape in all his menacing, canny, heartbreaking complexity and signing off here with a grandly tragic flourish. Ralph Fiennes, too, ends big, depicting Voldemort’s tumultuous emotions—fear, rage, hatred, shock—with enough spectacle to match the CGI swirling around him, and Warwick Davis, long in the background as Professor Flitwick, makes the most of his chance to take center stage, giving the goblin Griphook a shrewd, glinting intelligence.
The star this time, though, is Helena Bonham Carter, not so much for her familiar crazed Bellatrix but for her performance of Hermione as Bellatrix when the girl makes use of Polyjuice Potion once again, this time to infiltrate Gringotts. Transforming herself into her enemy—the brutal woman who tortured her just hours earlier—clearly makes Hermione ill. She looks desperately uncomfortable in Bellatrix’s goth attire and strains to feign the woman’s cruel, haughty demeanor, and Bonham Carter captures that beautifully, somehow looking younger and for all the world like someone displaced, someone wearing the wrong skin. After so much fabulous campiness of Bellatrix, the remarkable subtlety of her Hermione is refreshing—perhaps the best part of the movie.
Really, that whole Gringotts sequence is a tour de force: tense, taut, delicious creepy, and—with the appearance of an abused, tormented dragon—curiously poignant. Many of the Hogwarts scenes are similarly thrilling, albeit with a significant assist from composer Alexandre Desplat, whose dramatic score admirably heightens the emotion of the movie’s extended climax.
After all that to-do, the Epilogue is just as ridiculously unnecessary as it is in the book—worse, even, because of the inherent absurdity of asking actors in their early twenties to convincingly play a crowd of suburban parents comfortably settled into middle age. (Despite the makeup artists’ efforts, not one truly pulled it off.) But I suppose I can hardly fault Yates and longtime Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves for faithfulness to the text, warts and all. They have, in fact, realized J. K. Rowling’s beloved novels quite well. The books might be richer and more affecting, but that’s largely because that which lives in one’s imagination—as a book does—usually is. I could nitpick, but doing so seems churlish, and maybe even wrongheaded. Despite those few nits, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 is a very good example of how to do an adaptation well.