And so it ends at last. I'm not referring here to the films of JK Rowling's Harry Potter series (though it's true that the eighth and final instalment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, provides a definitive conclusion) so much as the agonising wait for another movie in the cycle that would live up to the creepy wonder of its third outing, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, more commonly known as "Harry Potter and the Only One That's Really Any Cop". With that 2003 film, the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón put the "art" into Hogwarts and conjured an autonomous piece of fantasy cinema, rather than another wet-Bank-Holiday-afternoon schedule-filler in the style of the first two movies.
David Yates has had the luxury of a long run-up to the job of overseeing Harry's swansong (he has been at the helm since the fifth movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in 2007). Now he finally hits his stride and finds his swagger; the film is strong enough to have the unusual effect of improving its predecessors in the memory simply by association.
The decision to take the Kill Bill option when adapting Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, carving into two chunks what was intended originally as one movie, now seems a canny one even to those of us who are not Warner Bros executives putting our children to bed each night on nests of $100 bills. What felt like meandering and time-killing in the first part of Deathly Hallows, where long stretches were spent with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) skulking around the forest in scenes that suggested an emo version of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, now makes better sense in the context of the new film. Part 1 was the calm, relatively speaking. Part 2 is the storm.
Essentially, the movie details the incremental defeat of Harry's nemesis, Voldemort, who has virtually guaranteed his own immortality through the use of horcruxes, which the wizard must find and destroy. A horcrux, as you may be aware, is an object in which part of a soul has been secreted, the better to keep it safe for future regeneration should the owner find themselves in dire straits. Think of it as analogous to a squirrel burying nuts, or a CEO diverting money into a clandestine account during a messy alimony hearing.
Harry sets out to destroy each of Voldemort's horcruxes. This simple quest structure, though festooned with the usual sort of clenched dialogue ("You seek my mother's diadem?"), gives the movie a snappy rhythm that's kick-started by a stunningly controlled set-piece at Gringotts, a bank run by elves with oversized hands and eyes like gleaming black marbles.
Down in the bank's vaults, which can only be accessed via the mine train from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, lies a goblet which once belonged to Helga Hufflepuff (not, as her name might suggest, a minor character from In the Night Garden, but a founder of Hogwarts school). Hidden in the goblet is part of Voldemort's soul, but destroying it is fiendishly complicated. The treasures in the vault multiply when touched -- silver plates spawn four identical offspring, cups give birth to a clattering litter of replicas -- in what amounts to a terrifying metaphor for materialism run amok, and a noisily clanging variation on the Midas touch. As Harry scrambles across this rampant, swelling mound of riches, grabbing for the goblet, it looks very much as though he is being eaten alive by Aladdin's cave.
If the rest of the movie never quite reaches the giddy excitement of that vault sequence, which has three levels of rapidly escalating peril, then it offers pleasures of a different stripe. As Voldemort, Ralph Fiennes slithers away with every scene he appears in, followed closely by Nagini, his good and faithful serpent, who proves that pets and owners really do come to resemble one another. As Voldermort invades Hogwarts, backed up by an army seemingly comprised of thousands of members of the Levellers' fan club, Fiennes savours a delicious monologue calling on the defeated pupils to join his forces. As the plucky Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) hobbles forward in an ill-advised cardigan, Voldemort sneers repellently and complains: "I was hoping for better." He's like a preening headmaster getting a buzz out of his own sarcasm.
Only Alan Rickman, as Professor Snape, rivals Finnes for lip-smacking thespian relish: when these two get a scene together, it's a hammy house of horror. Rickman's curtains of hair have grown so voluminous they surely now belong on stage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, while his painstaking delivery is on the verge of passing through self-parody and coming out the other side. Potter fans will know that all does not end well for Snape, but with Rickman in the role it has to be so for the sake of brevity. His delivery is already down to around five words-per-minute. Give him any more dialogue and there would be a further three films at least.
The practice of casting illustrious legends of British cinema in minor parts that any other movie would give to jobbing Joes on leave from Emmerdalehas given rise to a diverting game; in the absence of a snappier title, I shall call it: "Which Famous Actor Has the Least to Say?" Candidates in Deathly Hallows Part 2 include Gary Oldman, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters and David Thewlis, all of whom could have learned their line(s) on the way from the trailer to the set. A desiccated Maggie Smith looks like an early contender as Professor McGonagall, but is disqualified for a splendid wand-battle with Snape, and for the alliterative delight she takes in the line "a particular proclivity for pyrotechnics", which on her lips sounds like corn popping in the pan. The prize, though, goes to Jim Broadbent, who gets one line ("Potter!") and some brief off-screen rhubarbing.
As with any closing chapter, the cast list looks at times more like a casualty list. Mixed in among all the death, as in life, is desire. Love is in the air: Harry and Ginny (Bonnie Wright), Neville and Luna (Evanna Lynch), even Ron and Hermione dabble at last in the other dark arts. Didn't you find it was always like that at the end of term?
The general conservatism of the Harry Potter series has often led under-nourished viewers into daydreams along the lines of "What would it be like if only [enter name of devilish and/or demented filmmaker here] had directed it?" It's a credit to Yates that we rarely think that during the new picture. The vault sequence couldn't have been done much better by Guillermo del Toro; some hallucinatory close-ups of Voldemort as he wrestles with Harry will kindle fond memories of the satyr in Matthew Barney's Cremaster 4; and the design of one glutinous creature (the exact nature of which I will not divulge), coated in a blood-and-mustard mucus, is positively Cronenbergian.
Yates's direction and Steve Kloves's script don't overplay Harry's struggle as the films have sometimes done in the past when grasping at an earned mythical weight or profundity. Only the dialogue sometimes has a fortune-cookie feel. That said, there is one line -- "It's the quality of one's convictions that determines success, not the number of followers" -- that does at least offer a helpful lesson to the Twitter generation.
Deathly Hallows Part 2 has the bittersweet aspect one would expect from the closing episode to a cherished and long-running series, but it moves at such a lick that no one involved seems to be milking that element. Without the use of too many nostalgia-prodding flashbacks, it simply reminds us very gently of the vulnerable orphan boy at the heart of this over-embellished story. It's hard to imagine that devotees will not be richly satisfied, or that non-believers will resist for very long. "That was brilliant, absolutely brilliant," gasps Harry's best friend, sailing over London on an albino dragon. Ron's not wrong.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" is released 15 July