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I sense Harry Potter is a victim of his own success. Despite, or perhaps because of having legions of fans perfectly willing to spend hours if not days queuing for new book and film releases he’s not short of a few naysayers quick to deride. I suspect these haters might not be nearly so vocal in their complaints if the series hadn’t achieved the all-conquering success it did. Neither of my housemates like J K Rowling’s stories but I do. As someone who has spent most of his life creating a lengthy fantasy adventure series I have a certain appreciation for the amount of craft that has gone into the series but like many people I consider the books far above the films. Harry’s big screen adaptations have at times struggled to bring the rich, charming and complex world of the books to full life without sacrificing plot and pacing but as we all know the main complaint is with the three leads who don’t have the acting talent to do their characters justice especially given the thesps they’re performing opposite.

So here’s how I see the films. Philosopher’s Stone  and Chamber of Secrets, both directed by that intrepid explorer Chris Columbus remain the most faithful adaps translating the plot of the books largely intact whilst also maintaining the whimsical charm that made the early titles popular. Looking back the young actors were unable to bring anything but caricatures to the show with their acting but the films still make decent companion pieces to the books. Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban managed to maintain the unique atmosphere of the novel and handle the complexities of the time travelling plot and build the necessary tension to its twist conclusion while making great characterisation of important new figures. It has easily been the best in the series. Mike Newell took over for Goblet of Fire and things started to go downhill as the mammoth book proved too much content to translate into a fully comprehensible film without sacrificing pace and feeling although there were still some decent action set-pieces. David Yates has been at the helm ever since and his first film Order of the Phoenix was the weakest yet. Though the film did a good job of condensing the longest book in the series into a manageable running time the film itself is messy with woefully misjudged efforts at comedy. The worst of the bunch is Half-Blood Prince which is a complete shambles completely underplaying crucial plot points and some of the more interesting aspects of the book in favour of embarrassingly bad comic scenes. Deathly Hallows Pat 1 was an improvement with a refreshing new focus on the serious side of the story but suffered with a jarring atmosphere and no proper ending.

But now the film series reaches its conclusion with the second part of the seventh book and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised and can confidently say that the series finale is the best at least since Prisoner of Azkaban. A result perhaps oddly brought about by the decision to split the story in two.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione’s (Emma Watson) hunt for Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) Horcruxes (objects in which the dark wizard has concealed pieces of his soul that must be destroyed before he can ever be killed) takes them to the wizarding bank Gringott’s but Harry’s psychic link with his nemesis spurs them to quicken their pace and return to Hogwarts and Harry remains obsessed with the Deathly Hallows, three precious artefacts that possess wondrous powers.

It’s a complex plot that is building to some brilliant twists so here’s a bit more if you’re a novice. Voldemort carries one of the Deathly Hallows, the Elder Wand – the most powerful wand in the world which will only yield its full potential for its true owner, a status that can only be obtained by winning the wand from its previous holder. Harry is struggling with a wand he has taken from Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) after his own wand broke. Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) has been appointed Hogwarts headmaster by Voldemort and rules with terror but Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) leads a gang of students against his tyrannical command.

The film opens with a the well-publicised assault on Gringott’s and doesn’t disappoint, the sequence breathless and frantic but it’s not long before the action removes to Hogwarts and stays there. The huge climactic sequence of events at the castle that made up the better part of the book’s final third dominates the film. Here the decision to split the film makes the most sense as it means most of what happens in the book can be kept and the tension starts to build from a very early stage. Expect spectacular battle sequences and colourful pyrotechnics as the two armies clash. It’s dramatic stuff but there are many quieter moments to give the story some breathing room. We finally get to see Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) kicking some ass and the continuing search for Horcruxes becomes more and more desperate as the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort draws closer.

The highlight of the film for once matches the highlight of the book as we finally learn the truth about Snape. Alan Rickman runs away with the performance of the series with his moving portrayal of the series’ most complex character. He leads a cast of players including Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon and Helena Bonham-Carter all bringing weight and feeling to their roles. But what about those leads? Just as ever they can’t elevate to the levels of their older peers and it’s perhaps the script and direction that coaxes some decent moments out of them. Nonetheless the quieter moments of exposition are routinely underdone by three youngsters performing at GCSE acting level. Strangely Grint and Watson don’t get an awful lot of screen time. While this limits Watson’s chances to deliver the excruciating and inexplicable moments of seriously overdone intensity in moments that really don’t need it, their involvement starts to feel a little superfluous. Still this means the focus is rightly all on Harry and Radcliffe does the best of the three but he is still dwarfed by Rickman.

There are some great moments in the film and the building tension is palpable, an effect half achieved by the rousing score but as great as some bits are other sections feel woefully underdone. Important entrances are limp, the odd bit of CG underwhelms, line deliveries fall flat. It’s clear that bringing these books to the big screen has proved difficult but I’m still convinced a whole lot could have been done to make it better. Still, this is a rather entertaining and stirring end chapter that fans will appreciate and it’s been a long time since I saw a Harry Potter film that didn’t make me cringe. The saga sings off on a high note.

Verdict

Still flawed but a clear and significant improvement on the last few entries. Dark and perilous with plenty of action and standout scenes the inevitable rough patches are more forgivable than they’ve been in a long time. The faithful will be in raptures and even non-fans will be entertained.

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