If last year's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 marked the beginning of the end with a gripping feeling of doom and gloom, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 wraps things up once and for all on a note of melancholy.
Oh, it's dramatic, to be sure: gorgeous, somber and startling as the young wizard faces his destiny and fights the evil Lord Voldemort. But the end of this staggeringly successful movie franchise, an epic fantasy saga spanning eight films over the past decade, provides a necessary emotional catharsis for Harry and for us.
Even those who aren't ardent Potterphiles -- who aren't waiting in a line around the theater with their homemade wands and hand-drawn lightning scars -- might find themselves getting unexpectedly choked up a couple of times.
That has always been the real magic of the series, based on J.K. Rowling's novels: that mixture of the exotic and the everyday, the otherworldly and the utterly relatable. No longer the innocent children they were when they entered Hogwarts, Harry, Ron and Hermione are growing up and moving on, and so must we. That the future of the wizard world hangs in the balance in this final installment is only part of the tale.
Still, director David Yates has accomplished the difficult task of bringing it all to a close in satisfying fashion. Having directed the last four of the eight films, Yates has provided a momentum and cohesion to the Harry Potter canon, which has gotten progressively darker and more mature. And Steve Kloves, who has written all but one screenplay, has once again risen to the challenge of trying to please purists and casual viewers alike in adapting Rowling's writing.
Because it took two films to depict the action in the last installment, this second half doesn't feel overstuffed. It moves with great urgency toward the final showdown between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, deeply disturbing as usual); danger infuses every moment, and it never overstays its welcome.
Much of that has to do with the look of the film, both in its attention to inventive detail and to the sweeping, elaborate set pieces. The cinematography from Eduardo Serra, who also shot Deathly Hallows: Part 1 , is once again richly ominous and beautifully bleak. Here, Hogwarts isn't a warm, bustling place full of possibilities but a fearsome fortress swarming with Death Eaters, where Professor Severus Snape (the deliciously icy Alan Rickman) rules as if leading his own fascist regime.
Although the Potter films have always been about the escape of the spectacle, the kids and their struggle to navigate both good and evil provides some much-needed rooting in reality. Radcliffe has never been better, and brief flashbacks to the earliest images of him in the role only serve as a reminder of how far he's come. More is required of him physically and emotionally than ever before, and he's more than up for it all.
Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are still hunting Horcruxes -- scattered containers that hold pieces of Voldemort's soul, which are crucial to Harry's survival -- in order to destroy them. Hogwarts is no longer a place of refuge as Voldemort draws ever closer; his attack on the stately school is thrilling, but it also provides moments of heroism for some characters you might not expect.
Still, this is the place where all the narrative and emotional threads must converge and tie up at last. While Deathly Hallows: Part 2 offers long-promised answers, it also dares to pose some eternal questions, and it'll stay with you after the final chapter has closed.