With a pop-culture goliath riding on its back, David Yates's adaptation of the second half of Rowling's last tome follows a Part 1 that could barely sustain itself as a stand-alone work, given that it was driven less by necessary plot fidelity than by a desire to squeeze two films' worth of box-office profits from a single book, a bottom-line decision that's also true of this entry's superfluous 3-D. And yet Part 2 is a magnificent finale for this fantasy opus, one that pays ample justice to Harry's long-in-the-making showdown with He Who Must Not Be Named, a battle in which life and death, the past and the future, precariously hang in the balance. Before that cataclysmic confrontation can take place, though, Deathly Hallows must first chart Harry's attempts alongside best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) to locate a collection of remaining Horcruxes — enchanted objects that house pieces of Voldemort's soul, and whose destruction will make the Dark Lord mortally vulnerable.
That objective requires breaking into dragon-guarded Gringotts Wizarding Bank with the help of one of its goblin employees (Warwick Davis), as well as convincing a Hogwarts school ghost (Kelly Macdonald) to reveal the whereabouts of a hidden tiara. These quests pit treachery and self-interest against steadfastness and sacrifice, a fundamental series conflict that's embodied by Harry and Voldemort, the Christ and Satan at the center of Rowling's coming-of-age saga. Still, the propulsive film (penned, like all but one of its predecessors, by Steve Kloves) remains interested in such religious notions of martyrdom, fate and rebirth only insofar as they reflect the story's overriding celebration of friendship as an unbreakable bond even under the greatest of strains. Thus this installment's reunion vibe, heavy on cameos and returns to familiar locales, isn't merely a concession to demanding Potterphiles, but rather a closing expression of Rowling's belief in the primacy of camaraderie and devotion in the face of annihilation.
Yates's latest boasts an almost classical attention to mood and composition, with the director allowing shots to breathe for more than five seconds at a time, conveying emotion and dynamics through careful framing and spatial arrangements, and — notwithstanding a somewhat visually subpar airborne flight from fire — imbuing his CG-heavy centerpieces with grace and majesty. As before, however, performance truly trumps spectacle, especially with regards to Alan Rickman, capping off his iconic turn as Professor Severus Snape by slowing his dialogue down to a sinister crawl, and Radcliffe, completing his portrait of Harry's transformation from wide-eyed naïf to selfless adult with intense conviction and heart.
That development has naturally been mirrored by the series as a whole, whose early, buoyant, kid-friendly adventures are such a far cry from this film's black-night doom-and-gloom that, when now we get a quick glimpse of a cheerfully boyish Harry or of a long-ago teacher (Emma Thompson's Professor Trelawney, for example), it's like a punch to the stomach. The loss of innocence is Harry's true destiny, and as the movies have moved from the juvenile wonder of Christopher Columbus's efforts to the teenage awkwardness, confusion and anger of subsequent chapters, what emerges is a frank, multifaceted view of getting older as something at once jarring, frightening and — in its ability to allow one to clearly confront the world as it truly is — liberating.
Deathly Hallows' revelations of allegiance, deaths of cherished characters, and panoramas of ash-gray warfare — here highlighted by the sight of a jellyfish-membrane force field enveloping Hogwarts, and a race across a chaotic battlefield — can't fully compensate for a conclusion that hinges a tad too heavily on schematic and perfunctory magic-world laws. Yet such a miscue is ultimately negligible, for in its majestic vision of the energy blasts from Harry and Voldemort's wands clashing across a school courtyard, or in its flurrying flashbacks of Snape's true relationship with murdered Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), the film recognizes, with a maturity and sincerity that have become the franchise's hallmarks, that love and loyalty are the most vital, powerful and real in times of true darkness.