Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Trying to Figure Out Girls and Stop Evil at the Same Time

As the teens in Harry Potter mature, so do the films. The first two were pieces of fluff, kid flicks filled with a sense of wonder. Too bad the mediocre special effects don’t convey that wonder to the audience. The next two jumpstart the series, giving it worthy effects, top-notch action, and introducing the events that lead to Voldemort’s return. Think of the third and fourth film as the Star Wars to the fifth and sixth film’s The Empire Strikes Back. Both the fifth film, The Order of the Phoenix, and the sixth film, The Half-Blood Prince, were directed by David Yates. They are the best two films of the series, and they are setting up for a truly whizbang finale. Yates has an astonishing eye for visuals, his color palate is unparalleled out of all the Harry Potter directors, and he gets terrific work out of his young actors– he is the true headmaster of Hogwarts, and his magic has elevated this series to new heights.

The beginning of the film sets the stakes perfectly– the Muggle world is starting to suffer the effects of Voldemort’s return, while wizards continue to live in fear of the Death Eaters. No one is safe, and everyone thinks their time could be next. Yet when we see Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) for the first time, he is busy noticing a girl at a coffee shop and flirting. To be sixteen again! The world is ending all around you, and all you can think about is that cute girl who just smiled at you! Back at Hogwarts, Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) suspect that rascally Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is up to no good, and perhaps Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) is in cahoots with him. Meanwhile, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is encouraging Harry to get close to the new Potions teacher, Professor Slugworth (Jim Broadbent, a fantastic addition), to learn some secrets he may hold about Voldemort’s past. And all around, romance and heartbreak lingers in the air with each awkward pubescent silence.

What Yates has achieved that the other films were lacking is the sense of urgency– teenagers think that everything is the end of the world, so imagine the teenagers who were truly in charge of trying to prevent it. Without losing curiosity, these kids also have achieved a certain jaded quality to the twists and turns of the magic world by their sixth year and have shifted their interests towards each other. A lesser film would have continued to try to ram effects down our throat, but instead, Yates takes his time, letting us witness love triangle layered upon love triangle. It’s a realer depiction of teenage hormones than most non-fantasy films about teens. Some of the scenes are so suggestive, in fact, and the action so frightening, that it’s startling and pleasantly surprising that the MPAA would give this film a PG rating– nothing is so unnerving that an 11 or 12 year old couldn’t handle it, but it’s unlike the MPAA to give children’s abilities of deduction the benefit of the doubt.

Visually speaking, this is the best of the series, with some truly terrifically conceived shots that fluidly take us around Hogwarts and from scene to scene. In particular, a scene stands out in my mind that follows Ron and his girlfriend up a tower, gliding past windows that allow us glimpses of their flirtatious ways, turns to reveal Malfoy pensively staring out into the night on his balcony, subtly shifts downward to reveal the next morning’s sunrise, and tracks into a hallway to reveal Ron telling Harry about the previous night’s (*ahem*) activities. It’s a beauty of a shot, and there are countless examples that could be recounted in this review. How did the producers know David Yates would be so perfect for this series? Having seen parts of the BBC miniseries State of Play and his TV movie The Girl in the Cafe, it’s safe to say there is nothing within that could have hinted at the ability to stage effects-heavy action sequences with great realism or the sweeping grandeur of his camera movements.

Finally, the acting is top-drawer, containing the funniest and most natural performances from the three leads to date. Rupert Grint has shown a flair for the snappy one-liner, but Daniel Radcliffe manages some very funny moments and interesting line reads here; the theater experiences are paying off, as Radcliffe improves with each film. Michael Gambon lends his brand of British gravitas to Dumbledore, though the twinkle in his eye from the previous installments does get to be on limited display. The most important two performances in the film are the expanded ones, those of Tom Felton and Alan Rickman as Malfoy and Snape. Rickman naturally strikes just the perfect chord– I struggle to think of a single disappointing Rickman performance in his entire career– but Felton is most surprising, giving enormous dimension and even a sliver of sympathy at times for the previously one-dimensional schoolyard bully. There are times when the script asks him to be gut-wrenchingly human, then to snap back into villain mode quickly in order to protect himself, and Felton delivers.

The only slight criticism one can have is that it ends right before it begins: the last film was more successful in achieving an operatic battle to close out the chapter, whereas the events that take place here are changed somewhat from the book, and no such operatic activity is to be found. Instead, the film takes the subtler road, letting some horrifying events go by rather quickly, which seems right given the new set of urgent circumstances the characters find themselves in at the end of the film. One of the few series in cinema history that gets significantly better with age, the last four Harry Potter films have been immensely enjoyable, with the most recent two tiptoeing close to brilliance. With Yates at the helm, this franchise can do no wrong. They treat action and teenage relationships with the earnestness and respect they deserve. Nowadays, finding someone who can achieve that is pure magic.

~ by russellhainline on July 14, 2009.

2 Responses to “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Trying to Figure Out Girls and Stop Evil at the Same Time”

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