Gilbey on film: Harry Potter - the end of of the affair

The final movie in the franchise redeems all its predecessors.

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

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge