Chills. Chills all over. That’s what I experienced when I went to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II, the (unfortunately titled) final film in an eight-part series which, in part, defined my childhood and teenage years.
When the Harry Potter books first came out, my dad read them aloud to my sister and I. Some of my fondest memories involve sitting on the couch in our living room with him, cuddling up on either side, and listening to him give voice to the different characters. This didn’t happen with other books, only HP, and that made the series all the more significant.
I can’t say that the books changed my life, or that they single-handedly made me understand how necessary it is to accept and love others for their differences, seemingly one of J.K. Rowling’s main tenants of belief. But they did make a huge cultural impact, and the originality and vividness of Rowling’s writing inspired what is, to my mind, one of the most well-adapted series of films we have.
When I saw Deathly Hallows, Part II, I was very emotional. It was the end of an era for a certain set. But it is also a masterfully-made film, distilling so much intensity and experience on the page into a concise, tragic, and ultimately triumphant series’ end. It is well-worth discussing as the closing chapter to a remarkable cinematic and literary journey (impending films based on the HP universe not withstanding), and as an exquisitely wrought fantasy film.
Deathly Hallows, Part II was the fourth in the series’ string of best films (save for the superbly adapted and wonderfully original Sorcerer’s Stone), all directed by David Yates with a pervasive darkness and insight into teenage complexity. In a sense, then, the series aged along with its protagonists; as Harry and pals felt pure evil—and romantic inclinations—encroach upon them in increasingly dangerous forms, so did the films take to the shadows and limits of human emotions and actions.
The final film is essentially an extended battle for Hogwarts castle as Lord Voldemort’s forces attack the far fewer witches and wizards, young and old, holed up inside. One of the genius pieces of the adaptation is its intent focus on Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s experience of said battle. As they run through the wreckage of the castle and giants swing massive hammers overhead, the camera hardly seems to notice. Their mission is clear: defeat Voldemort in any way possible.
There are moments alongside supporting characters that devout viewers will relish as well: Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall joining forces with Mrs. Weasley and Professor Flitwick to create the tenuous defensive shell encasing Hogwarts; Neville Longbottom triumphantly pulling the sword of Gryffindor from the sorting hat; and Harry’s mother Lily appearing in ghost form alongside his father, James, godfather Sirius Black, and mentor/professor/werewolf Remus Lupin, just to name a few. All of these are likely to cue tears from anyone with half an investment in the world Rowling built for over a decade.
The scene I’ve chosen, however, places a supporting player at the forefront, and ties up several loose narrative threads in a satisfyingly tragic and tear-jerking montage. It’s an obvious choice, but also a thematically resonant, beautifully realized one: the memories of the recently deceased Severus Snape, viewed in the pensieve by Harry, which reveal that he, too, must die in order for Voldemort to be defeated. And, that Severus’s long-standing dislike for Harry, and pretty much all of his actions, have been shaped by his undying love for Lily Potter.
Someone get me a Kleenex.
About halfway through the film, Voldemort invades the minds of Hogwarts’ denizens and tells them they need to deliver Harry to him, or else. So, Harry and friends travel to the boat house by the black-watered lake. There they encounter Snape, near-death after a vicious attack by Nagini, Voldemort’s pet snake. He beckons Harry—who still believes that Snape is evil and in cahoots with Voldemort—to him and tells him to collect his tears, filled with memories, so that he can watch them in the pensieve and know the truth behind Snape’s actions.
What follows is a harrowing look back into the past: at Snape’s tormented childhood; his early love for Lily, who accepted him as he was; James, Harry’s father, bullying him in the hallways of Hogwarts only to later marry Lily. These moments are vividly realized, with well-cast young actors carrying the scenes. But the true heft of the memories comes from visions of events which have taken place over the course of the film series.
As Snape divulges that he sees James in Harry—arrogant, haughty, and undeserving of praise—we realize why he has spent so much of his adult life disliking the Boy Who Lived. But we also quickly realize that Snape was always in Dumbledore’s confidence, that he was expected to look after Harry in a certain sense, and that Snape was, in fact, double-crossing the Dark Lord. And all of this for Lily.
Everything about the construction of this four-minute clip is perfection; it is a microcosm of every reason that this film, one of the best cinematic fantasies ever, should have garnered awards and high praise from all corners. Alexandre Desplat’s moving, mature scoring; d.p. Eduardo Serra’s rich, dark lensing and judicious use of canted angles; Stuart Craig’s exquisitely magical but realistic production design; and yes, Alan Rickman’s tortured, somber performance as Severus.
It is an emotional high-point in a film filled to the brim with expectation and climactic scenes. And it’s a risky tonal turning point: Harry is the final horcrux and must be destroyed. That’s a downer if I’ve ever heard one. But wrapped in the beautiful and sad package that it is, it resonates as a fact of life, a fact unloaded on Harry who has always been years wiser (and sadder, and more aware) than his age.
The stage is set for the great battle between good and evil, and one of Rowling’s constant refrains shines on through: love is, for better or worse, the strongest emotion in the world.
Watch the scene below, and let me know about your favorite Harry Potter moments!