Ten years. Eight films. Four directors. It's official: Against all odds, Harry Potter is as stirring a film saga as Lord of the Rings.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II, the final bow of the boy wizard, his boon friends and his formidable enemies, director David Yates (who helmed films five through eight) chooses to touch audiences rather than wow them. The finale is a potion that induces euphoria, tinged with melancholy.
By now, Daniel Radcliffe's owl-eyed stare, Emma Watson's nostril-flaring incantations and Rupert Grint's slack-jawed swagger are as familiar as our own kids' facial expressions.
By now, three years after the final installment of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter saga was published, most come to HPDH.2 knowing who is inscribed in the book of life and who is not.
But they will come. And will be rewarded with a 3-D spectacle (that will play equally effectively in 2-D) emotional as a high-school commencement ceremony. If possible even more touching, as this is the one where the would-be graduates defend Hogwarts, their school, from the armies of evil led by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).
Although not blessed with a cinematic eye, Yates, a sensitive director of actors, structures his movie like the final movement of a symphony. He reprises themes and characters from the previous films that swell in the epochal siege of Hogwarts and ends his films with an almost wordless coda that will wring tears even from Harry haters.
Yates knows how to use silence for emotional impact. The early sequences of HPDH.2 are without music on the soundtrack, all the better to focus on Harry (Radcliffe), Hermione (Watson) and Ron (Grint), and their quest to find the Horcruxes, the shards of his own soul that Voldemort has embedded in objects. With each Horcrux discovered and destroyed, the snakelike Voldemort, apparent victim of the world's worst nose job, diminishes in power.
Yates is more attentive to the actors - the central trio and Alan Rickman's Severus Snape, in particular - than he is with choreographing the film's big set pieces.
Harry Potter, the phenom, is many things. It is a full-employment act for the British film industry. It is a multiplatform corporate brand. But most of all, it is Rowling's cracking good story about idealistic youths up against corrupt elders. All involved with HPDH.2 bring their A game, from the young actors who have grown enormously in grace and gravity to the immensely talented artists who have maintained a consistently high quality.
Alexandre Desplat, the gifted French composer of The King's Speech, interpolates John Williams' Harry Potter themes with subdued reverence. We hear echoes of who the characters once were and distant rumbles of who they will become.
This is, likewise, the objective of screenwriter Steve Kloves, who adapted seven of the Potter films. He sculpts J. K. Rowling's massive books into shapely scripts, finding the emotional through-line in the thickets of her prose, and bringing into relief her humor and humanism.
Production designer Stuart Craig (who has worked on all eight Potters) and cinematographer Eduardo Serra (a collaborator on the final two) create a Potterverse as familiar and fantastical as a dream. A certain limbo where Harry encounters a friend thought dead resembles King's Cross Station reimagined as a military hospital. During the Battle of Hogwarts, warriors lay waste to sets that become besieged as London during the blitz and yet possess the romantic aura of ancient Greek temples.
It sends shivers down the spine when Voldemort, who resembles a very debauched storm trooper, wheezes, "Harry! Join me in the Forbidden Forest!" The subsequent duel between Harry and Voldemort - shown at a distance as it moves to the Hogwarts quad - isn't, finally, as mythic as that of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. But what follows strikes a deeper chord as one generation passes not torch but wand to the next.
The movie puts a spell on you.