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July 25, 2009

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Movie Review – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

by TOM NIXON

Moments before David Yates’ masterful Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix started to turn nasty, there was an innocuous moment of fond fire-lit banter which broke the heart, a touch of natural adolescence made tragic and haunting by its placement in this world where the kids must be adults, when even adults won’t do. There are two coming-of-age films in Yates’ follow-up Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince; one which hopes to carry on this magical interweaving of dark and light, and the other, dominant film, which would rather spend its time indulging in gratuitous charm and whimsy.

Harry Potter 6 is a gorgeous, frustrating mess. The bulk of the action focuses around the “stings of love” which boil over in hormonal bursts between the young protagonists. Yates quite blatantly associates these hormones with uberbaddie Voldemort, having Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) tell the students that Voldemort’s “greatest weapon is you” and then not long after, asking Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) about whether he’s romantically involved with pal Hermione (Emma Watson). “Just curious,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.

Problem is, there’s nothing dangerous about the heartaches and heartbreaks of Harry and friends, only a mighty excess of juvenile, albeit charming, gags and melodrama. It feels all too digressive, not defined or poeticized by the overarching escalation of tension implied by the wild, threatening first ten or fifteen minutes. A couple of kids taking one another’s hands could be beautiful and deadly against a background of relentless instability and fear, but the romance is prioritized so absolutely that the background disappears, and we’re left with meaningless childsplay which hardly even builds character, busy as it is with eliciting as many chuckles and awwws as possible. If making Hermione fire some birds at Ron’s (Rupert Grint) head is Voldemort’s grand weapon, then there’s really nothing for anyone to worry about.

It’s strange, too, to think that Harry begins the film by engaging in some flirting which doesn’t lead anywhere because there’s no time for such nonsense. This is one of very few moments when there’s a sense that these kids are just flailing sadly towards the few snippets of normality available to them – the rest of the time you’re just watching an everyday high school romcom, ‘cept in a real pretty castle. It doesn’t even help that Yates does some things with a great deal more subtlety and expressionist wonder than Rowling could muster, because he doesn’t just let the interesting stuff lurk under the surface, he actually removes it completely until he decides it ought to return. It’s lovely to watch the camera floating dreamlike around these beautiful sets, but it’s no substitute for the stinging ambiguities of better films in the series.

Snape’s characterization, considering his central role in what’s to come, is neglected to an almost disgraceful extent, and that’s never clearer than moments where his responses to accusations of cowardice, unlike in the book, verge upon mechanical. This is possibly the biggest disappointment of all, as it was Yates who so perfectly, chillingly dramatized Harry’s viewing of Snape’s memory in the previous film. Meanwhile, the half-blood prince’s book is all but ignored for the bulk of the picture despite being the focus of the title. For those who aren’t aware, Harry finds an old potions textbook full of scribbled hints and tips by a self-named “half-blood prince” which allow him to become even better at potions than infallible nerd Hermione Granger. The identity of the prince is an intriguing mystery in Rowling’s novel, but here we learn so little about the book that we’re barely interested in whose it is. Yates is all too busy showing Harry and Ginny (an awful Bonnie Wright, whom I assume was picked to play Ginny long before Rowling revealed her central role in the story) throwing awkward gazes one another’s way.

If that was all, then it’d just be bad and we could leave it at that. But Harry Potter 6, in fits and spurts, is quite astonishing. I’m stuck with an early image of a bereaved Harry gazing vacantly into the face of an epileptic clutter of camera flashes, arm grasped softly by Dumbledore, leading straight into a twisted reflection of London in an office window which evokes the same kind of claustrophobic darkness as Christopher Nolan’s recent Gotham City. Or an image of Harry being forced to tear down this last and greatest father figure, only for that figure to rise up like a God and save the son, alone now and doomed; a moment which concludes the most powerful string of images across the series, summarizing what has been and what can be no longer. I’m struck too with a lingering memory of Harry crossing just once into the dark as, using a spell from the prince’s book, he recklessly near-kills a boy who may be finding his first light. It’s a frightening subversion and it speaks to subtext which ought to be present, however subtly, in every scene, coloring each one a far murkier hue.  It’s sad that the lion’s share is so lighthearted and isolated from its context that you can’t help but feel like you’re watching two completely separate films.

Another plus point is Jim Broadbent’s fabulously evasive portrayal of Professor Slughorn, a man obsessed with ‘collecting’ students of notable reputation, but full of shame for the part he once foolishly played in the dark lord’s rise. Dumbledore takes Harry to Slughorn’s home in the hope of luring him back to teach at Hogwarts, finding him disguised as an armchair in fear of being found by the wrong people. Dumbledore fixes up the ransacked house before going to “use the loo” and there are many moments like this, establishing over and over that Dumbledore can fix anything, and retain a sense of humor while doing it. I always wondered if the film adaptations would be capable of establishing Dumbledore as the world’s safety net in the same way as the books did, and Yates is perhaps the first to manage it. Harry unwittingly succeeds in ensuring that Slughorn returns to teach the Chosen One, and much of the resulting plot involves Harry, on Dumbledore’ request, trying to coax Slughorn into giving up a memory which could potentially reveal the dark lord’s weaknesses. We are witness to flashbacks of a young Voldemort, but they give few insights other than his being an orphan and slimy as hell; slightly more interesting is his protégé and analogue Malfoy, whose relationship with Harry in the sixth film works on a similarly symbolic level.

The climax does manage to pack a punch despite deviating, not always wisely, from its source. If nothing else, I’ll remember a moment where Hogwarts’ inhabitants aim their wands to the thunderous sky and gradually dissolve the dark lord’s looming standard using rays of light. It’s a tribute to what the film ends up being; a few rays of goodness which can’t suppress all the bad (or, rather, insignificantly pleasant), but can at least stave it off, just a little.

2 1/2 stars


2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Helen
    Jul 26 2009

    I really enjoyed this film while I was watching it, but it doesn’t bear close scrutiny and I wouldn’t disagree with any of your criticisms. There are significant immediate pleasures in the look of the film (production design, costuming, effects, etc., etc.), performances by the stellar adult cast, and the effective if obvious orchestral score, and the dark core of the story is compelling. Yet even as I watching it I found the teen romance angle an unnecessary distraction at best – the scene at Ron’s sickbed is particularly cringe-worthy – and in hindsight it’s a critical misuse of screen time that would better have been devoted to more resonant story lines and better-acted characters.

  2. Tom
    Jul 27 2009

    the only thing i liked about the sickbed scene was the way it lingered on the adults’ reaction to all the nonsense, snape’s foul expression especially made me laugh. but yeah, agreed.

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