After a perfunctory couple of shots lifted from the end of the first installment of The Deathly Hallows, the film begins in earnest with a scene of slow, quiet urgency at an oceanfront cottage that could have been imported from Jacques Rivette’s Out 1. The Harry Potter franchise’s winding-down films, all four directed by David Yates, rely heavily on such calm-before-the-storm moments as the hour of Voldemort’s inevitable defeat draws nigh. As the director himself has evolved from an efficient and vaguely stylish, yet unsure, functionary into the greatest director of blockbuster cinema since Steven Spielberg, the sense of unhurried, supple balance rarely departs from even the busiest, most deafening, most f/x-laden sequences. As a firestorm rages through a seemingly infinite attic space, Yates’s camera (presided over by Eduardo Serra, who lensed seven of Claude Chabrol’s last eight feature films) circumscribes enough screen space to anchor the chaos to a stabilizing, grounded structure with reassuring x-y axes, giving the viewer the pleasure both of frantic motion and its container.
If that’s a little too egghead-cinephile for you folks, bear with me. Essential to understanding the magnitude of Yates’s achievement is to deliver him from the lukewarm deathblow of “workmanlike,” which is perfectly appropriate for Mike Newell’s turn at bat, and far too kind to the toxic Chris Columbus. The fact that Yates marshals a mile-long grocery list of business with the grace and poise of an orchestra conductor, and makes it look easy, isn’t just flattery, it’s an indication of his method. The unavoidable flurry of activity and getting the treasure and escaping certain death and all that, the prostrate-before-Rowling, infernal importance of each “from the book, do it right” moment, the prestige of a project this scale, all of these symptoms of prideful self-commemoration are inseparable from a nonchalant, wistful distance, an attitude of smallness that calms it down, and gives us, as Ratatouille’s Anton Ego might say, a little perspective.
These two indices of scale (macro and micro) are never far apart from one another. There’s nothing new, for example, about a horde of bad guys getting ready to storm the good guys’ stronghold (curiously, every face in the horde seems to have a sufficient fill lighting; hey, aren’t you supposed to make CGI effects dingy and hard to see, as demonstrated in Peter Jackson’s movies?), but Yates pivots the whole, expensive panorama on a furtive single step, the squeak of one leather boot as the chief baddie tests Hogwarts’s force field. For Yates, casualness and abstraction are inextricable from the emotional force of his direction. Images that have been worn to a nub from overuse (the Cloak of Invisibility, Dementors, Disapparating) reacquire elegance, if they ever had it to begin with. Even the image of Lily Potter being struck down—only one of a thousand moments Columbus fumbled in The Sorcerer’s Stone, from which the shot was lifted—gains emotional resonance and abstraction through reframing and repetition. The only sequence that risks getting a summons for excessive exposition (the last dip into the Pensieve) is saved by a fluid, unstable fragmentation reminiscent of Gondry/Kaufman, and the unexpected welling up of longing and heartache in Alan Rickman’s brilliant performance. (His is one of the deftest balancing acts of the year, operating as the film does on multiple octaves.)
Deathly Hallows: Part 2 also sounds strange. The horcruxes emit a steady, maddening, low whine, similar to the one heard throughout Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. The goblin custodians of Gringotts wield what looks to be a U.S. Army version of a baby’s rattle to rend a pale, keening dragon into submission. The alarms at the same institution sound like the protest of a thousand alley cats. There’s also the combined timbre of half the British stage—a crowd from which Rickman, Maggie Smith, and Ralph Fiennes distinguish themselves. Sometimes the acting is that of high, dry, scene-stealing camp, and sometimes it’s like Yates has read my mind and knows that all I want every now and then is for a character to stand completely still and not say anything.
That in itself may prove a divisive issue. Some will complain that the film doesn’t explain every last thing that’s happening and why, or provide ample context, blithely assuming you’ve read the books, and simply plows ahead. Good. I haven’t read more than a few chapters of any of the books, except for The Sorcerer’s Stone, and that was over 10 years ago, but for a finale like this—in stark contrast to the never-ending conclusion of New Line Cinema’s Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Based on the Novel The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien—it’s safe to say that less is more. A lot more. Is the story really of such paramount importance at this point? Hogwarts becomes Precinct 13 and Voldemort is the Death Star—there you go. The big picture is backdrop, as Yates, while gently weaving the shuttle of parallel editing between these two major movements, finds limitless opportunity to depict smallness and stillness in the chaos and hubbub, reshaping the bombast and branding around the most minute contours.