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It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for: a Harry Potter film that clocks in at less than 135 minutes. You’d think that the epic finale to an epic series would be, well, epic. But returning director David Yates and stalwart screenwriter Steve Kloves instead have streamlined Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, telling the second half of the final book concisely and cleanly, and for once not leaving you feeling dizzy and befuddled, like you’ve been zapped with a Confundus Charm.
In contrast to Deathly Hallows: Part 1’s snap-to-it action-packed opening, Part 2 eases you into things. We see Hogwarts under Professor Severus Snape’s (Alan Rickman) rule, its students marching in lock-step as dementors patrol outside. We see the grave of Dobby, the house-elf who died at the end of the previous installment. And we see our heroes Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) at their safehouse, Shell Cottage, moping about. It’s all quite melancholy, yet serene.
Of course, the business of the plot needs to start somewhere. Harry and his friends interview Griphook (Warwick Davis), an ailing goblin and former employee of Gringotts, the wizarding world’s bank. They’re still on the hunt for Horcruxes, talismans that contain bits of Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) soul, and want to break into the vault of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), Voldermort’s right-hand woman, to search for one. They bargain for Griphook’s help with the Sword of Gryffindor. “How did you come by that sword?” he asks. “It’s complicated,” Harry answers.
You want to cheer. Without losing a sense of nuance, Kloves nevertheless strips away the book’s fat—all those characters, all that history, all that explanation about the end-of-all-ends—and boils the story down to its essentials. There are recaps when you need them, hints of what previously went down when you don’t. It probably helps to have followed the series up until this point (better with the books than the films), but newbies shouldn’t be too lost.
The set pieces, as usual, are fantastic. There’s a funny yet thrilling sequence of the trio’s infiltration of Gringotts, with Hermione disguised as Bellatrix. The front of the bank is regal, trimmed in marble and gold with two long counters of stern goblin tellers. The back of the bank is another world: You travel via roller coaster to the vaults, which are protected by a fire-breathing dragon. A surprise splash of water cleanses visitors of any spells, so it’s not long before the now-herself Hermione and the boys need to high-tail it out of there. (Literally and spectacularly, with the help of that dragon.)
The bulk of the film, however, comprises what might as well be called the Battle of Hogwarts. Harry returns to the school to find the last Horcrux and, ultimately, to fight Voldemort to the death. There he finds assembled his co-conspirators, whom we know as Dumbledore’s Army (basically the good-side students). Voldemort’s creepy, snakelike voice infiltrates the institution, promising widespread death should Harry not present himself.
Naturally, a war breaks out, not all of it going our hero’s way. But even amid the fighting, there are welcome moments of quiet to break up the bluster. This is an equally thoughtful and thrilling installment, perhaps the franchise’s best. As always, the kids—who have been living as their characters about half as long as they’ve been living as themselves—do all right. Even Radcliffe is less wooden than usual.
Although Yates put the kibosh on presenting Deathly Hallows: Part 1 in converted 3D, Part 2 wasn’t so lucky. Be forewarned before you plunk down those extra dollars: The cinematography even in 2D is so bleak—dark gray is the palette of choice—that one imagines you’ll hardly be able to see anything at all with glasses on. And this is one Potter where you won’t want to miss a thing.