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Film Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009; Directed by David Yates)

Turns out the resident director for the final act of the HP film saga just needed one movie to get his feet under him. After his clumsy-but-occasionally-inspired Order of the Phoenix (which was admittedly more clumsy than inspired in book form), David Yates goes full-on inspired with Half-Blood Prince, crafting Steve Kloves’ spare but potent script into moody, murky stunner.

I won’t even bother worrying about spoilers, or even going into detail about the cuts from 220px-harry_potter_and_the_half-blood_prince_posterbook to film. Dedicated Potheads know all about the former and will bemoan the latter to infinity and beyond. But gradually, I’ve come to appreciate the film versions on a much more deeply-felt level than Rowling’s beloved tomes. This is mainly because they shave off all the knobby, unwieldy bits of J.K.’s overwrought series and leave us instead with astounding art production, crisp cinematography, committed (if broad) performances and magical visual metaphors. You can credit/blame Alfonso Cuaron for setting the visual tone with his game-changing Prisoner of Azkaban, but Mike Newell and now Yates delved into the invigorated realm of imagery with skill and wit as well. Oddly, stripped of Rowling’s vaunted plotting intricacy (which is just so much busy detail masquerading as complexity), the films bring out the mythic scope, comic slyness, and mythic scope of her work and let them truly flower.

Yates finds a surer visual touch in Prince than he did in Phoenix, playing with depth, making subtle camera moves, filling the corners with surprising details. The design of the film, again, is brilliant; small, key elements like the bottle of Liquid Luck, Slughorn’s hourglass, or the intricate wrought-iron grace notes on Malfoy’s Vanishing Cabinet have sinuous Art Nouveau lines that stick in your mind’s eye. Kloves’ script, as I implied, keeps what we need and what we want, but many of the details that the fanatics feel were left out are indeed here, tantalizingly implied. We see Arthur Weasley’s shed full of Muggle contraptions, Wanted posters for Fenrir Greyback, and other subtle allusions to Potterverse elements. If you listen to many fans, it’s a key failure of the films to not bonk us over the head with everything, as the never-subtle Rowling does. But I think it’s a blessing.

Each Potter book (and thus, film) has different showcases for different characters, and Prince has plenty of fine stuff for the oft-forgotten Dumbledore, Snape, and Draco Malfoy. Alan Rickman’s line readings still revel in tantric delays, but you can see him revving himself up for Snape’s full-on tragic hero act in The Deathly Hallows, especially in the Unbreakable Vow scene. With Malfoy a minor figure in the final book (and final two films), long-suffering Tom Felton finally gets to humanize his rich little shit, and does so by haunting Hogwarts corridors with emo angst and roiling self-doubt. He does a fine job giving depth to what could have been a cliched turn. But Half-Blood Prince is Dumbledore’s swan song, and Michael Gambon now owns the role more deeply than the staid Richard Harris ever did. I’ve heard his final scene derided as too brisk, but I felt it was lingered over just enough. The less said about the cheesy wand tribute, the better, but it is at least an improvement over Rowling’s funeral scene.

Ronnie the F’n Bear

I suppose I should talk about the central trio, but they seem so secure in their roles at this point, there’s hardly much interest in them. I still find Ron to be a doofus, but Rupert Grint is a good young comic actor and gets laughs even when he maybe shouldn’t. Emma Watson has never really lived up to the huge promise she displayed in the early films, but she’s still got Hermione down cold (and, on occasion, I mean COLD); it’s too bad she spends basically the whole film pining for the doofus. Dan Radcliffe isn’t the master thespian he’s being pushed as, but he’s more than adequate. His slightly-stunned scenes under the influence of the Liquid Luck are pretty darned funny, and I liked his underplay of Harry’s reaction to Dumbledore’s death; he’s been through so much of this by this point, he knows that emotional histrionics are a waste.

Really, though, two performances jumped out and delighted me. Jim Broadbent gives Horace Slughorn more pathos and depth than I thought possible, playing the Potions professor as a bit of a lonely bore who desperately clings to talented youth to feel relevant and to combat old guilt. His awed description of a magical gift from Harry’s mother is a lovely, delicate moment, and his wonder is infectious. On the other side of the spectrum is young Jessie Cave as Lavender Brown, Ron’s brief snog-partner/girlfriend. Cave has spilling dirty-blond locks and a lovesick mania to her face that is deeply hilarious, and she steals nearly every scene she’s in. The comic scenes about developing hormones are set off in isolation to the more serious plot-based ones, but what makes them flow is the lampooning spirit which nonetheless takes the concerns of youth at face value. And Lavender Brown’s lunatic teen-girl explosions drive that balanced comic tone.

So, in summary: another solid adaptation that may very well be an objectively better aesthetic work than the novel it’s based on. It’s about all we’ve come to expect from recent Potter flicks, and, for my money, it outdid the series-closing two-fer that it preceded.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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