Dir. David Yates
(2011, PG-13, 130 min)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is a surprisingly violent film that shows how far we’ve come in ten years. I remember a climactic scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) in which Ron (Rupert Grint) is thrown off a horse during a life-size chess game, and at the time that seemed like an especially dark turn for such young characters. But compare that to an early scene in this film in which Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) steps over a roomful of bloody corpses. Or one where he sics his giant snake on an underling’s neck. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Nevertheless, this is a satisfying conclusion to the decade-long Harry Potter saga, though it bears little resemblance to any of the films that came before it; after seven films of wands, spells, cloaks, owls, elves, and jelly beans, here we have the Invasion of Normandy. I think director David Yates owes a debt to Peter Jackson; he stages exciting battle scenes distinguished by opulent production design, panoramic shots, and imaginative visual effects, but as the forces of evil descend upon the forces of good, you’d be forgiven if you start to mistake Hogwarts for Helm’s Deep.

Ralph Fiennes, as Lord Voledmort

The laborious exposition from Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is mostly out of the way, setting up our heroes for a fetch quest to retrieve some MacGuffins, which they must destroy with some other MacGuffins. Specifically, Ron, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), and Hermione (Emma Watson) must find Voldemort’s remaining horcruxes – the pieces of the dark Lord’s soul that must be dealt with before they can kill him – and then destroy them using either the Sword of Gryffindor or the tooth of a snake, whichever is handy. All that is just phlebotinum, which doesn’t really matter, so I wish the screenplay weren’t so preoccupied with it; there’s an even better movie to be made more greatly emphasizing the human element if only you could get those hallows and horcruxes out of the way. Besides, the hallows turn out not to be as crucial as they were made out to be in the previous film, and that poor, careless Voldemort – he left bits of his soul lying around like dirty socks before laundry day.

The film is at its best when the emotional stakes are the focus; decisions and sacrifices must be made, and not everyone makes it out alive. It’s a fact Hollywood seems willfully ignorant of sometimes, that big action set pieces are made exciting not just by the pyrotechnics involved but by the people involved. We’re invested in the action sequences in this film precisely because we’ve been made to care about these characters over the past ten years. Also, the scenes are not edited into microsecond chunks of incoherent mayhem – that helps too.

I was especially impressed by the expanded role of Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), who has been mostly a bumbling background player in previous films, but the graciousness of puberty has turned him into a handsome Hogwarts everyman, and the courage he demonstrates here is more inspiring than Harry’s precisely because Neville isn’t the Chosen One. (Also, one of Harry’s acts of courage turns out to be kind of a cheat.)

Some of the best moments in the series can be found in this film, though Deathly Hallows: Part 2 doesn’t cohere quite as well as what I consider the high-water marks of the series, Goblet of Fire and Half-Blood Prince. It can’t be said of many movie franchises that I’ve liked every installment, especially franchises that have run this long – George Lucas, I’m looking at you – but there you have it. Harry Potter was a good series of films, artful, ambitious, sometimes great. Maybe one day I’ll read the books.