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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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood