For 10 years, the Harry Potter franchise has been a constant in my filmgoing life. I can't say it's something I've particularly enjoyed, and I confess to feeling a certain amount of relief now that it's over. True, since director Chris Columbus left the franchise after the second installment, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," the series hasn't produced a single less-than-satisfying episode, an impressive feat when you consider there have been seven films up to this point. But only rarely have these movies been truly spectacular as standalone items, and unfortunately that tendency carries on to the final chapter.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2" picks up where last fall's "Part 1" ended, bringing us the final battle between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) as the future of Hogwarts hangs in the balance. If "Part 1" was a nicely dark and moody affair that hummed with dread, then "Part 2" is almost something of a war movie, providing the franchise with probably its most action-oriented installment.
For those who love the movies -- not to mention J.K. Rowling's original books -- "Part 2" will be an emotional, harrowing ride. I can attest to that because the sniffles of my fellow audience members were audible throughout the movie's final 30 minutes. And although I found the film engaging enough, I suspect that the casual fan might be less moved than the diehards. For people in my camp, these are movies that have brought us stunning visual design but only occasionally a compelling, visceral experience. I don't say that to gloat or to mock the franchise's fans. It's not great to feel emotionally cut off from something that clearly has affected friends and colleagues.
As with the last three films, "Part 2" is directed by David Yates, and once again he (with the help of cinematographer Eduardo Serra) has provided a superb atmosphere of creeping unease. Especially in a summer movie season that has been mostly loud and chaotic, "Part 2" is startling for how quiet, tense and elegant it is. For a movie about kids, it's refreshingly grownup in its approach. While it seems that Harry and Voldemort's feud has been needlessly drawn out over several films, this series has always been good about giving death its proper weight. At one point, a character in "Part 2" says that we should not pity the dead but, rather, the living, and that philosophy has guided this franchise as it reached its conclusion.
But if there's nothing to complain about when it comes to the look and tone of "Part 2," the film hits rougher water when it lays out its emotional stakes. For me, the two best films in the series were "Prisoner of Azkaban" and "Deathly Hallows - Part 1." In both, the foreboding was amplified but also the sense that Harry and his pals Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) were trapped in dark fairy tales. (For what it's worth, these are the two installments that most people would say are the slowest.) By comparison, "Part 2" has several arresting images and scenes, and yet it feels a touch too busy, both with incidents and characters. Just about everyone we've encountered over the last 10 years of Potter movies shows up in this one, even if it's just brief cameos, and while "Part 2" is relatively short for this franchise it ends up feeling draggy.
Additionally, the final reveal about Harry's upbringing, although masterfully handled, boils down to the same general family issues and big secrets that have been with us since at least "Star Wars." On its face, the series has always been just the latest twist on the story of an unlikely misfit hero discovering he's the one who can save the day. To be sure, many, many other films have done a lesser job with the same narrative, but the same narrative it remains.
So after "Deathly Hallows - Part 2," what am I left with? Pretty much the same feeling I've had about this franchise from the beginning. I'm genuinely happy for the people whose lives have been changed by this series: It's been an honorable franchise that has made a ton of money without worrying about dumbing down its product. (If anything, the movies could have been a little bit less self-serious so that its humor didn't so often fall with a thud.) But, in the end, my review of "Part 2" is about the same as it has been for just about every other Potter movie. It's a good film, just not a great one.