Harry Potter’s final feat of magic

After a glut of clunky Hollywood blockbusters about aliens and superheroes, this is a tonic

by Brian D. Johnson

(from left) Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint in 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2'

Finally, a great summer blockbuster! There was no question that the finale of the Harry Potter saga would be a massive commercial, and cultural, event. What comes as a surprise is that it has turned out to be an inspiring cinematic event, maybe not quite on the same scale as The Tree of Life—and at the opposite extreme of narrative convention—yet strangely akin to it. I was trying to think of a recent movie that pondered coming-of-age, death and cosmic gravity with as much conviction, and The Tree of Life was the only one that came to mind. I’m not a Harry Potter devotee. Haven’t read the books,  haven’t seen all the movies (our book guy, Brian Bethune, covered the phenomenon in the magazine). So I felt like an outsider amid the hysteria surrounding this week’s gala premiere. The upside is that I could watch Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 as a stand-alone movie. And I was knocked out. With me at the screening was Maclean’s web editor Claire Ward, who is less than half my age, and an avid fan of the books. So it seemed like a good idea that we should have a dialogue about the film:

BDJ: So Claire, I don’t think we need do to much plot summary here. For fans, it’s a given. And for the uninitiated, it’s too late to catch up. I had a pretty good idea of what was going on, though even with gobs of exposition, some of the plot flew over my head. But I didn’t care. After a glut of clunky Hollywood blockbusters about aliens and superheroes, this came as such a tonic. Ultimately it’s a war movie, with stupendous special effects, but it has dignity, grace and depth. Potterworld is still a foreign place to me, yet I found this film far more thrilling and moving than the others. What did you think?

CW: As a cinematic experience, it was probably my favourite in the series. I think the filmmaking has matured alongside the actors. The colour palette was rich and moody, the pacing was suspenseful, and I didn’t find the 3D too intrusive (too often 3D gags just throw me right out of a movie). But then this was a serious film start to finish, so there was no time to reintroduce viewers to the once-vibrant and childlike Potterworld. You either know it well by now, or you just hop on for the ride. Actually, despite the gobs of exposition, even I felt like I was missing things. And I’ve read all the books. It felt a little like being in a cart on a really elaborate theme park ride, where you can’t begin to take in all the detail that’s whizzing by. This finale, like its predecessors, doesn’t dwell on all the symbolic details and mythical sub-plots that make the books so rich. When Harry interacts with the resurrection stone, for instance, I found the ‘I’m-ready-to-die’ moment of truth a little rushed. This moment—probably the pinnacle of his coming of age—has much more emphasis in the book. But all in all, there were enough Easter eggs to keep this Potter purist entertained.

BDJ: Ah, that’s the beauty of not knowing the books. I have no idea what I’m missing. I agree, the 3D is not bad, though it darkens an already sombre look. One thing that struck me is how far the film resonated with a world beyond Harry’s magic kingdom. You can see the long, cold shadow of Britain’s battle against Nazi Germany. It’s there in the brave crusade against Voldemort’s fascistic dark forces, and in the rubble of Hogwarts. And I felt a whiff of classic war movies, even a bit of Bridge on the River Kwai.  But I imagine those themes haunt the books as well. What distinguishes this Harry Potter from all the other special effects blockbusters, aside from the depth of its literary source, is the Brit pedigree of the filmmaking. From the pacing to the acting, this feels like a British movie, not a Hollywood movie. Even the effects were created in the U.K. There’s plenty of action, but you never feel bombarded. There are luxurious stretches of smart dialogue. And immaculate silences! Our audience was completely hushed for long stretches. Not to mention that troupe of amazing Brit actors. Alan Rickman is a treat. Ditto Maggie Smith and Helena Bonham Carter. And though I still keep imagining Ralph Fiennes with his mashed nose as the burn victim in The English Patient, he has a wonderfully insidious presence. It’s thrilling to see how the young actors hold their own in this company, and how the film franchise has served as a virtual Hogwarts, a boarding school academy of acting.

CW: On that note: I actually have a bone to pick with one performance, but I’m not sure who to blame. Harry and Ginny: the chemistry just isn’t there. Ron and Hermione: fantastic. Can we pause to applaud that mid-battle kiss? Bravo. Now, the books set up these romances early on with hints of flirtation amid the pubescent angst. When Harry and Ginny finally become an item, my Jane Austen-loving heart fluttered with joy. In the movies—and especially this one—their chemistry falls flat every time the two share a scene. Frankly, it’s disappointing. You want the hero to have his day in the sun, and you want to love his love interest, especially when the ass-kicking female lead is destined for someone else. I don’t love Ginny in the movies as I loved her in the books. I blame the absence of sparks in part on the casting strategy. For the makers of the film, it was important that all the main actors were contracted for the entire series. This has been a boon in most respects. Watching the characters grow—hearing Tom Felton’s (Malfoy’s) voice drop, watching Rupert Grint (Ron) grow to tower over Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), witnessing Emma Watson (Hermione) evolve into an Audrey Hepburn class beauty, not to mention the nerd-to-heartthrob transformation of Matthew Lewis (Neville)—has been a pleasure, and it’s maintained that serial adventure appeal. But surely casting eleven-year-olds who, at eighteen, are supposed to be a good on-screen match, is an impossible guessing game. Off-screen, Bonnie Wright (Ginny) has grown into a statuesque, ginger-haired model, but on-screen, she and Radcliffe are stilted and awkward. ‘Tis a shame. Speaking of the acting, though, I recall you giving Watson highest marks for performance in the last film. Who stole the show for you this time?

BDJ: I’d have to say it was Alan Rickman. He navigates the shifting moral ground of Snape’s character with such sly dexterity. Because I didn’t know the story, I had no idea where the performance was going. And I love the way he embodies the creepy, almost erotically sinister quality of the strict English schoolmaster—the world-weary decadence of that dry diction. Small confession here. I was born in England, and grew up English. Though I emigrated when I was five, I attended a Brit-style all-male private school staffed by eccentric masters who caned students for the slightest infraction. So the rich parody of boarding school culture in the Potter series struck a chord with me. (One could argue that a tangential line can be drawn between Harry Potter and If. . . (1967).)  The big difference, of course, aside from the fact that the kids are making magic rather than revolution, is that this school is co-ed,  and that Hermione is such a powerful character. Personally, I barely noticed the lack of chemistry between Harry and Ginny. Yes, it puzzled me that the male lead’s romance seemed like an afterthought, but I liked the romantic asymmetry of it all. My biggest caveat is the flash-forward epilogue, which was anti-climactic and cloying. Until then the movie had been remarkably edgy—more emotional than sentimental. But I gather the filmmakers were being true to the book. Is there nothing about this film we can fight about?

CW: OK. Here’s something. I think this may be the fault of the editors, but Watson appeared to have just two looks. This one. And this one. She’s lovely to watch, but her usual expressions of woe and fear started to remind me of Kristen Stewart à la Twilight. That got annoying.

BDJ: No argument there. Her character is strong, not deep. But these are quibbles. Even though I still don’t fully understand what a horcrux is, I’m happy to proclaim the Potter finale a triumph. I predict it will not only be the year’s highest grossing movie, but will emerge as a leading contender for Best Picture.

CW: Agreed. We’ll have to save the fight for next time. One final thing: Helena Bonham Carter playing Hermione disguised as Bellatrix Lestrange was the Burton darling at her finest. My favourite scene, hands down.

BDJ: Was that a spoiler? Beats me. You do wonder, however, why Tim Burton has never got his mitts on one of these movies. Too late now. Or is it? Will we see remakes? Now that the most lucrative franchise in the history of film has come to a close, Hollywood will find a way to keep the cash cow milking. And I bet it’s only a matter of time before Cirque du Soleil gets into the act.




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Harry Potter’s final feat of magic

  1. Helena Bonham Carter as Hermione as Bellatrix was some damn fine acting. And the final scene was much less cloying than the final chapter of the book.

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