Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Director: David Yates

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By Roderick Heath

David Yates’ unexpectedly splendid third feature and his second Harry Potter film, sees a director come of age as a wielder of imagery and a buckaroo adept at handling a cast of Britain’s most fearsome character actors. More than that, Yates and writer Steve Kloves finally provide a fitting follow-up to Alfonso Cuaron’s reinvention of the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) in the intensity of its fantastic imagery and the quality of its engagement with its characters. This is characterised, oddly enough, by a level of dry, keen-witted restraint rare enough in a blockbuster.

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Episode six begins with the shadowy threat of Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters beginning to assail even the Muggle world, destroying an appropriately new-school target, the Millennium Bridge, and wreaking general havoc. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), idling away the summer still haunted by the death of his godfather Sirius Black, is flirting with a railway café waitress when he’s summoned away by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). He’s to play a part in extracting from Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), a teacher summoned out of retirement by Dumbledore, a crucial memory involving Slughorn’s one-time student, Tom Riddle, the future Voldemort. The memory may just hold the secret to curtailing Voldemort’s capacity to return from the dead. Meanwhile, perpetual foil Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has been recruited to arranging the infiltration of Hogwarts by the Death Eaters, led by the sibilant bitch-queen Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) in an assassination attempt on Dumbledore. Snape (Alan Rickman), the great series question-mark, has been forced by Bellatrix and her sister, Draco’s mother, Narcissa (Helen McCrory), into a pact to kill Dumbledore if Draco can’t.

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The second-last instalment (not counting the fact that The Deathly Hallows will be split in half) was faced with significant problems. J. K. Rowling’s book, though sporting an impressive, wrenching finale, was one of the lumpier and least focused entries, with few set pieces and a lot of Pensieve flashbacks, so the film of it seemed doomed to place-holder status. Oddly enough, this seems to have made the filmmakers more confident in compressing the plot and expanding on the interaction between the characters. The film’s single greatest scene, perhaps of the whole series thus far, sports Harry, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), and newbie Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) mourning over the corpse of a giant spider. Hagrid’s distraught, Slughorn is befuddled and opportunistic in trying to gain a vial of the spider’s venom, and Harry, jubilant as a coke-fiend under the influence of liquid luck; the three of them perform a kind of awkward funeral service, after which Hagrid and Slughorn get roaring drunk, and the teacher tearily, drunkenly confesses his darkest shame to Harry. It’s a couplet of scenes that alchemises something priceless out of the material and the actors, capturing the qualities that make Rowling’s creation so beloved—the rich sense of the English traditions of droll black humour and wonderment in the banal, attachment to both the fantastic and the familiar, the emotional, and the just plain weird.

But what’s really intrigued me about Rowling’s creation is its basis in a peculiarly British sensibility, and not just the cutesy one that’s on the surface. The evocation of the WWII era in UK speculative fiction is a cliché, from John Wyndham’s Blitz atmosphere in novels like The Day of the Triffids (1959) through to the single greatest Doctor Who episode, “Genesis of the Daleks” (1975), with its outer space SS and eugenicist supervillain. Although Voldemort, in his bleak background, genocidal intent, and general megalomania, is undoubtedly Hitleresque, Rowling’s atmosphere is rather more Cold War, constantly evoking another buried shadow in the British psyche—the betrayal of its esteemed institutions by the Soviet moles Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, and Donald MacLean, who sprang out of precisely the sort of close-knit public school atmosphere Rowling’s series celebrates, and gouged a hole deep in both left- and right-wing psyches. Thus, the Death Eaters all share a radical commitment that’s built around an assumption of their own superiority. Tellingly, both Harry and Voldemort are defined by a sense of lost lineage that places them each ill at ease in either the patrician or plebeian schemes; Muggle-born Hermione desperately attempts to overachieve to find her place in the scheme of things.

Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1986), written by Chris Columbus, was probably the reason for Columbus being the initial choice to helm the series. That film is startlingly similar to Rowling’s creation, rather more so than the commonly cited Star Wars series, with two-boys-one-girl trio of heroes in a boarding school unearthing a conspiracy involving their own teachers, one of whom, Anthony Higgins’ Professor Rath, destined to reinvent himself as lifelong nemesis Moriarty. Columbus, however, was not as good a director as Spielberg or Levinson, and his opening pair of films were all gee-whiz mugging. Still, I was intrigued enough to take up the books. I soon realised Rowling, for all her limitations as a writer, had two great gifts: real emotional intricacy and a genius for plotting, gifts that kept me going through the acres of not very amazing this-adolescent-life satire.

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This is perhaps why Cuaron’s much-admired entry irritated me as much as it impressed. For all Cuaron’s lovely visual embellishments, he buggered up the fundamental thrill of the moment when Rowling’s clockwork plot and manipulated perspective clicked into alignment. Rowling’s commitment to watching the world through Harry’s eyes became a liability that badly hurt the last two books (the terminus for Snape’s subplot in The Deathly Hallows was criminally clumsy), a problem that Yates and Kloves solve with dexterity here, boding well for the thunderous conclusion to come. The finale is sublimely handled with a sense not just of spectacle, but also of threat and mystery, as Dumbledore and Harry risk life and limb to rescue an object that proves to be a fake. The sequence is realised with startling visual invention and a fit sense of minimalism by Yates, from black waters teeming with grotesque skeletal wraiths to the blinding swirls of Dumbledore’s roaring fire-magic imbued with a genuine sense of evil and wonderment. Hail the uniquely sadomasochistic moment in which Harry fulfils Dumbledore’s promise of making him pour litres of potion down his throat that fill his paternal teacher with screaming self-loathing, and a confrontation between Harry and Snape that’s been pared down from giddy free-for-all to a singularly dark nonbattle.

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It’s a conclusion that outlines how comfortable Yates is here in turning good literature into intelligent cinema, a shot in the arm desperately needed to stop ambling its way to a conclusion as a glorified advertising hoarding. Yates’ debut feature, a fine piece of bittersweet Victoriana, The Tichborne Claimant (1998), was a tale that treated an unremitting account of social revenge on presumptive social climbers with the lightest dust of magic realism. Likewise, The Half-Blood Prince has the same keen sense of how to weave the corporeal and the ethereal, the social and the fantastic in terms of Rowling’s crucial conception of the two being confoundingly complex, requiring young folk to become map-makers of their own existence. Yates is also unafraid to embrace horror-movie chic as his stylistic avatar for the series’ intended maturity, quoting J-horror, George Romero, and Hammer horror, sporting a sequence in which Harry and crush Ginny Weasely (Bonnie Wright) combat Bellatrix and werewolf henchman Fenrir Greyback (Dave Legeno) in a swamp that’s straight out of Terence Fisher. Carter seems to be channelling Sweeney Todd costar Johnny Depp in her eccentric lurches of manner and diction, and she’s a gas whenever on screen, which, alas, isn’t enough.

The Harry Potter franchise demands attention, not just for the scale of its appeal and success, or even for just being expansive, easygoing fun in an increasingly jarring, bullying era of event movies, but because after six instalments and nine years, the series is something that’s never really been done before in Hollywood. Even some close cousins I came up with—the Weissmuller/O’Sullivan Tarzan films, the Connery-Bond films of the 60s, the Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub series—don’t quite compare because they didn’t sport as sophisticated a running story as the Potter episodes, nor the same unity of production elements maintained over such a length of time, including a steadily aging core cast whose actions and reactions have become as familiar as old friends, working with defined stories whilst also existing in a state of flux and volatility dictated by the way time affects both cast and audience.

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Thus The Half-Blood Prince takes advantage of the expansion of the acting talents of its three principal stars. Daniel Radcliffe, who’s played stoic heroism with increasing obviousness, has his best moments when his consumption of distilled luck remakes him momentarily as almost drunkenly chirpy, allowing him to give his character an assertive eccentricity it otherwise lacks. Emma Watson as the girl-nerd Hermione who doesn’t realise what a babe she’s grown into, broken up by her growing, unrequited ardour for Ron Weasley, has a newly light touch; and Rupert Grint has undeniable potential, stretched here in moments such as when Ron is temporarily befuddled by a love potion that reduces him to a grinning git that leads to a priceless piece of wordless acting when he’s brought around and his love-sick smile faces into mere sickness. Beyond that trio, the series stalwarts, from Maggie Smith’s perpetual recasting as Miss Jean Brodie to Rickman’s perfect Snape, are in top form. Broadbent’s fusty, fogged Slughorn is so perfect it’s a damned shame he’s never been in the series before, and Evanna Lynch’s lovable dingbat Luna Lovegood steals every scene she’s in. l

  • Sri spoke:
    19th/07/2009 to 8:11 pm

    I was disappointed in the fact that they didn’t spend enough time on why the movie is called THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE. They didn’t show how obsessed Harry became with the book, nor did they show how Snape became suspicious of him having the book, or the true identity behind the book. Snape may have been the Half-Blood Prince but the movie didn’t reveal why or how, or the fact that the book belonged to his mother 50 years prior, and the fact that Snape is “half-blood” and no one expected that. The movie just very flatly announced at the end that Snape was the Half-Blood Prince, period – the end. My favorite still remains HP3: Prisoner of Azkaban.
    Being a great fan I have collected a list of good sites and articles (may be around 200) related to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (movie information, movie schedule, movie reviews, books, games, news, wallpapers and many more). If you are interested take a look at the below link
    http://markthispage.blogspot.com/2009/07/all-you-want-to-know-about-harry-potter.html

  • Rod spoke:
    19th/07/2009 to 11:29 pm

    Hi, Sri.
    Frankly, I’d forgotten who the Half-Blood Prince was, and, really, it doesn’t have the much bearing on the story. There’s a lot of stuff, yes, that didn’t make the cut, like the Ministry politicking which is part of owling’s darker reflections on the corruption of institutions. Which is part of a larger point worth making both in good and bad terms: the novel is such a cornucopia of material that inevitably many things of wit or interest are neglected. What pleased me about this entry and bugged me about The Order of the Phoenix was that a solid sense of cinematic shape was conjured out of the material on offer.

  • liz spoke:
    20th/07/2009 to 3:36 am

    I love these films. Must say Phoenix was a bit of a downer, but I liked the darkness of Goblet of fire. Still have to see Half-blood prince and looking forward to it!

  • Rod spoke:
    20th/07/2009 to 9:47 am

    Hi, Liz
    Downer? Curious word! The Order of the Phoenix was perhaps my favourite of the books (yes, Prisoner of Azkaban has the best plot, but not the density of intrigue and reference) and I dare say its epic darkness was part of what I liked about it. The film had some good moments but it went too far in curtailing the background satire, the interaction of the Order, and the excellent finale. Sirius’ death had a curious lack of weight as a result.

  • Delia spoke:
    20th/07/2009 to 10:16 am

    well I thout it was great, even though I slept right at the end. I have to say I wanted to cry because 1. dumbledore was dead.
    2. ron got an new girlfriend, and he got poisend.
    BUT, IT WAS GREAT!!!!

  • Rod spoke:
    20th/07/2009 to 11:32 am

    That’s another thing: Watson and Grint play well enough to almost convince me of the felicity of the Hermione/Ron thing, which frankly never quite did it for me on the page. Actually, very few of Rowling’s romantic pairings seem right to me; they’re curiously provisional.

  • Patrick spoke:
    20th/07/2009 to 10:09 pm

    I felt the Hermione-Ron romance was all wrong. He’s a sidekick to Harry, somewhat clownish at times, and the sidekick doesn’t get the girl away from the leading man (or boy in this case). Further, if you watch the Harry-Hermione interaction throughout the series, it is always Harry who is more attentive to Hermione, more tolerant of her quirks, than Ron, and Hermione likewise who always comes to Harry’s help, or defense when some action of his is being misunderstood. Plus, Emma, err Hermione, turned into a cutie and your normal teenage wizard would certainly have been attracted to her.

  • Rod spoke:
    21st/07/2009 to 3:00 am

    Well Rowling was clearly aiming for a kind of opposites-attract thing with R & H. But no, it never persuaded me either, and the fill-in romance of Harry and Ginny never exactly caught fire either (with all due respect to Bonny Wright in the movies, who’s got a kind of porcelain charm), as if she was trying to be clever, and not being clever enough, in stumping expectations.

  • Mykal spoke:
    22nd/07/2009 to 9:06 pm

    Marilyn: Very interesting analysis. I have never been a fan of either these books or movies (although I must say I will always have a very soft spot for the books as they introduced reading to my son when he was little); however, I enjoyed the way your post made me look at things afresh. You are surely correct: whatever one thinks of Rowling as a writer, it would be hard to deny her genius for plotting at the very least!
    And the movies, as you say, simply can’t be ignored for their epic achievement. It really is a bit like a single project that was filmed, more or less steadily, for nearly a decade. I often wonder how strange it must be for the young, principal actors that grew up acting those parts. The roles have dominated their young adult lives; and will surely continue to dominate the rest of their acting lives as well. Can anyone really imagine any of them ever doing any other role? Not that they will ever need to. The franchise has given them all generational wealth.
    Excellent post!– Mykal

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/07/2009 to 10:03 pm

    Mykal – Ah you have fallen victim to mistaken identity. This wonderful review was by my blog partner, Rod Heath. Take it away, Rod.

  • Rod spoke:
    23rd/07/2009 to 4:00 am

    Take me away. Please.
    As for the HP trio, I’m interested in seeing what else they have to give. Radcliffe seems to have a real interest for edgier, artier fare, and he’s done a few indie and TV films in addition to his much-hyped Equus revival, that may work well for him in the future, but he strikes me as the least interesting of the three. But all of them show signs of putting in effort to expand their craft; how much, and how much that will help them move on, I can’t say.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/07/2009 to 8:10 am

    I think Radcliffe will definitely have a career, and a good one. Grint is a good actor, but I suspect he’ll go behind the camera if he stays in show biz. Watson? She won’t go far.

  • Basant Medhat spoke:
    3rd/08/2009 to 11:16 am

    I need to coment about the last film its no end and no cinema magic so its to poor ,
    we need strong film next time
    Thanks

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