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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince ***½

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HalfbloodprinceReturning for his sixth year at Hogwarts, six months behind schedule, the sixth film adaptation of the Harry Potter series has arrived with a peaky pelvic thrust. Helmed by David Yates, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has excelled both at the box office and in critics’ notebooks. Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban was the last critical darling (and arguably the only truly self-sufficient cinematic installment to date) but now it has a peer with which to jostle. Like the latter, Half-Blood Prince adopts a darker, more adult tone (but unfortunately, rather bungles the sexual aspect to our heroes’ coming-of-age, reducing what was an integral and not insincere dimension of their last full year at school to diminutive comic relief). Yates doesn’t have quite the flair of Cuarón when it comes to blending light with dark, and what emerges is a film of two distinct halves.

On the one hand, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is plunged deeper into the dark intrigue surrounding the ascent of Lord Voldemort, riding on the tailcoat of Prof. Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). Tasked with extracting a memory from the magically sealed recesses of the mind of new Potions master Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), Harry must uncover the secret of Voldemort’s turn to murder and evil, and make various inadvertent references to grooming in the process. Without giving too much away, I will point out that this involves horcruxes, which are something like the One Ring from that other big-money fantasy franchise (and not quite the amazing flight of originality some seem to believe; nor is the name itself big or clever – just another lazy Latin portmanteau from Rowling, who lacks the Tolkeinesque education to conjure a serious system of naming within cohesive mythical language).

HalfbloodprinceOn the other, there are a web of romantic intrigues about our protagonists, each of which is necessarily diminished by limited screen time. Each potential partner for Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) is reduced to a flimsy cut-out: whether the force-feeding, lace-tying awkward creep of Ginny Weasley, insultingly sugar-coated parody of Lavender Brown, or drippy toff-jock Cormac McLaggen. These diverting non-sequiteurs manage to diffuse the tension and momentum of the slow-burning moody fugue narrative that made this my favourite of the Rowling stories. So much so, in fact, that younger audience members may find it difficult to pay attention, let alone stay involved (“Are we nearly there yet?”).

Naturally, it is a tall task to adapt any of these sprawling bedtime novels to the screen, but the thematic emphasis of the original seems to have been lost in Steve Kloves’ attempt to please all audiences, and without obvious signposting, it is difficult on reflection to describe what actually moves the bulk of the film. As many have noticed, there is an underemphasis on the final act (“the unfortunate event”, “…. kills …. !!”). I, however, thought the film should have closed more abruptly after the Big Event, shortening this final act even further. I also feel that the key subplot, Harry’s interaction with his annotated potions textbook (which originally made many of the strongest connections to earlier entries in the series, and did the most to develop themes of struggle with inner darkness and Harry’s link to his nemesis) was sorely malnourished (odd since this is the source of the film’s title). Yet the film seems to be about the right length, and strikes a workable compromise between truth to the source and independent coherence and cinematic efficacy. It does also impress, though to a lesser extent than Prisoner of Azkaban, by competently juggling its humourous and darkly serious dimensions.

HalfbloodprinceWhat I liked the most about Half-Blood Prince was its stylistic quality. Might I go so far as to call it aesthetically pleasing? One reviewer began by describing the opening shot of Harry, in faded sepia, blasted with paparazzi camera flashes Scorcese-style, and went on to list other expressionist and formalist styles that permeate the film: its colour palette, the soft fades, hazy dreamscapes, the whole mise en scène. It is very nicely filmed and spectacularly post-produced: it would do Half-Blood Prince an injustice to ignore its phenomenal effects, the best in the series and essential to carry the magic of the more far-fetched passages (wizard combat and terrorism, magical firestorms, zombie inferi).

Amongst the major criticisms of Half-Blood Prince are the performances of its leads, the leveling effect of overpopulation on its top-tier adult cast, the addition of inconsistent events to the fictional world, and a sense of repetition. The last two are easily demolished: a sense of repetition is inevitable in a series that deals with school life in all its cyclicality and structure, and that is more of a strength than a weakness to its intended audience, unfamiliar as they are with the homogeneous world of work (although I can’t vouch for my sense of déjà vu at Harry’s intractable muggle wardrobe); and those key changes made by Kloves and Yates (the attack on the Weasely homestead, and Harry’s choice not to act at the disturbing climax) fulfill both cinematic expediency but also build up subtexts otherwise insufficiently established in the film: on Snape’s ambiguous motives, Harry’s existential freedom, and the madness of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). The other criticisms deserve a little more attention.

HalfbloodprinceThen there’s the issue of the young cast. It is true that they were very well cast at such a young age, and have grown into variously talented actors. It is, of course, easier for Evanna Lynch’s Luna Lovegood and Tom Felton’s Draco Malfoy to stand out from this crowded franchise (with supporting roles more strongly characterized in the source than those of the other youths, and less screen-time to show up their flaws than the leads). But both performances are compelling, nuanced. There are also Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and Frank Dillane, who do as good a job as old Ralph as the young Tom Riddles. And both Grint and Watson seem to do an increasingly good job of handling the inevitable two-dimensionalisation of their parts for the films. Grint, in particular, has done a great job of finely honing his gentle tragicomic interloper (though Watson has a harder time of it, still trying to sincerely convey depth of emotion, each expression appearing a variation on the same smiling grimace).

As usual, the youngsters are cast against a slate of the finest talent the British screen has to offer. Alan Rickman’s Snape is, as always, a firm favourite (though he has rather too little time in the limelight for an installment which is ostensibly about him). And Broadbent is a welcome addition, though his arrival does serve to illustrate how the Potter films manage to distill such star performers to caricatures, in the two or so dimensions on which many of them have been typecast for so long. And my one final bugbear is Gambon’s Dumbledore, as camped up, beard-knotted and beret-sporting Irish dandy. It’s not in his performance, but in the ungainly characterization – but it’s too late now for a return to the wizardly formality of Richard Harris (gently imperious, grandly bearded and straight-hatted).

On the whole, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a bit of a mixed bag, but well worth watching for all that is good in it. Just don’t be surprised if the kids get bored, start running around and irritating the rest of the audience.

I will leave you with the trailer and a couple of quotes from amusing reviews:

Darker, more hormonal, more teenage-angsty and sadly more boring, the Potter franchise is back. Half-Blood Prince is the penultimate book, but antepenultimate movie. The seventh and final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is reportedly going to be divided into two films. But who knows? Maybe that second half will be split, and then the second half of that will separate, and like characters in a lost paradox by the pre-Socratic thinker Zeno, cinemagoers will never actually reach the end of the Potter films…It all lasts for a solid two-and-a-half hours, of which around 60 minutes is dramatically superfluous. Yet due diligence has to be paid to the HP source, and to its hyper-alert fanbase. It is certainly extraordinary to think how the three cast principals have grown up, in real time, before our very eyes. But frankly their acting style and behaviour haven’t grown up all that much here. For all the saucer-eyed commentary about how much darker and tougher and realer the new Potter is supposed to be, it is still really about as dark as the adventures of Timmy Tiptoes, and the young leads still look basically as demure and agreeable as when they were knee-high to a one-sixth scale model of Bonnie Langford. And, heaven knows I was an incredible suck-up at school, but I don’t think I ever called the masters “Sir” quite as often as Harry does.

(Peter Bradshaw)

[While] the very future of Hogwarts and its beloved headmaster appears to be under threat, the pupils are largely concerned with amorous adventures. Ron Weasley is pursued by Lavender Brown, Luna Lovegood chases Harry, who is perpetually on the point of kissing Ginny, while a neglected Hermione petulantly sulks. Indeed, the movie might well have been called “Harry Potter and the Raging Hormones”. The combination of puppy love, witchcraft and the public school ethos suggests a film that might have come about in 1939, had MGM decided to conflate three of its then-current projects: Love Finds Andy Hardy, Goodbye, Mr Chips, and The Wizard of Oz…I have no doubt that fans of the Potter novels and films are going to have a grand time with this handsome, meandering, overlong movie. But wouldn’t it be a good idea if JK Rowling insisted that, what with women becoming increasingly important in the narrative, there should be a female director for one of the remaining movies? I’d love to see what happened when Harry Potter met Sally Potter. Fake orgasms in the Hogwarts’s dining hall perhaps?

(Philip French)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dir. David Yates, Writ. Kloves & Rowling, Warner Bros, UK, 2009
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