In the end it all comes down to the acting. Not the battles, not the flying creatures, not the magical effects and certainly not the 3D! No, it's the compassion and fire in Maggie Smith's watery eyes, the way Helena Bonham Carter distinguishes the wacky Bellatrix from Hermione's impersonation of same. it's Alan Rickman bringing seven years of nuanced villainy to a truly touching climax. It's our years of familiarity with these characters that brings meaning and memories to every undeveloped moment and leads you to the inexorable conclusion that yes: this finale does live up to its promise.
Even having read all the books and seen each movie, the specifics of Hallows II's plot was still impossible to follow. So, overlook the details and just concentrate on the general showdown between good and evil, Voldemort and our heroes.
If you're looking to relive the drama of subplots in the book, fergeddaboutit. Details have largely been ditched. We don't linger on Fred's death, Albus' youth or the riddle of Riddle. Action drives the movie and we're left to relate to our trio's feelings, without truly sharing the experiences that invoked them.
The first 20 movie minutes sailed past without much involvement on my part. Harry, Hermione and Ron breaking into Bellatrix's vault provides the most extended bits of humor in the film. The rest is dark, but more substantive. It's when the story returns to Hogwarts that the emotion ratchets up.
The battle for control of the wizard world becomes centered at the great school, as students, teachers and warriors from both sides fight for dominance. Voldemort and his Death Eaters have put a price on Harry's head and tell the other students that if they turn Potter in, they will escape torture and destruction themselves. One by one, people sacrifice their own life, not only to save Harry but to save the principles they believe in, choosing to die for good rather than to live under rules that are evil, unethical and cruel.
It was when Professor Minerva McGonagall threw herself in front of Harry and showed that you don't have to carry a "big" stick, if it wielded with wisdom, experience and strength of character, that I felt myself first bubbling over. After that, the tissues were out until the closing credits.
In truth, with my HP history, I brought more to the movie than the script brought out of it. For instance, when we see the mighty Hagrid in chains, then watch him carry a "dead" Harry back to his friends, I project all the pain into such scenes that the film would gloss over.
Yet, I think Harry's struggle is adequately conveyed. His guilt so heavy and so long-suffered that he doesn't bother expressing it any longer. It's something he always wears, just like his spectacles. He walks through the ruins of Hogwarts, past the dead and those who mourn them, without tears, just the weariness of one who's learned that being sorry never changes anything.
If he were only thinking of himself, he would have been glad to let Voldemort kill him long ago. He's fought this long, not because he believes his own press or thinks he alone has the power to defeat the Death Eaters. It's because after all this time, he's realized that sometimes accepting help is the best way to give it. In many ways, being a lone gun is the most selfish choice of all, when there are those whose lot is intertwined with yours, when you've become as much a movement, as a man. In that situation, if you die so others may live, you just might be betraying them in the worst way possible. That is the main reason why Harry put off a suicide trip to Voldemort for as long as he did. But the question "how many people have to lose their life protecting mine?" was always with him.
The white light minutes that Harry spends at King's Cross following his "fight to the death" with Voldemort seems a bit corny and cliched. Once he returns to Hogwarts and the final showdown plays out (Harry vs. Voldemort, while Ron and Hermione square off separately with Nagini, the deadly snake who holds the last piece of Voledmort's soul), it feels less triumphant than expected. But the fact that the characters themselves seem to feel the same is actually thought-provoking. Once Voldemort is dead, there is no rejoicing. Harry walks through the ruined school without exchanging calls of victory with his fellow students. They all thought him dead just a bit earlier, but aren't celebrating his his resurrection. Unlike in the past, this time no one lauds him as a hero and he's never had the bearing of a conqueror. Tired, bruised, all are as cognizant of what they've lost as of what has been preserved. Wordlessly, Harry keeps walking, even past his beloved Ginny and we don't know what he's looking for until Hermione and Ron appear. Hermione is smiling shyly, but the three don't share a reunion. Instead, they simply regroup, as one body that's never really separated in the first place.
The epilogue is not as compelling as the book's. Perhaps, because one is too focused on the cosmetic "aging" of Ron, Hermione and Harry than on the years and adventures that made them adults and parents. Though, I am touched when Harry gives a pep talk to his son, who is named after both Dumbledore and Snape, with the latter being recalled as the bravest man Harry has known. Brave? I'd say selfless. Indeed, if I could choose only one moment in the movie to keep with me, it was when a dying Severus demanded that Harry look at him. "You have her eyes." Yes, there's love after death, even (or especially) for those who never loved us back.
So, we leave the new generation of Potters and Weasley/Graingers after seven books and eight movies. The highest compliment I can give the franchise is that it left me longing for more. Rowling's lessons of love, loss, friendship and loyalty cast a spell, as enchanting and enduring as any wand's.