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The sixth chapter in the film adaptations of Joanne Rowling’s impossibly popular series about a gifted young orphan is all about pulling back and letting go.  This mantra seems to have also applied very well for director David Yates, who hits a lofty high with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Yates has tightened up the narrative and actually improved on Rowling’s original material.  Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was one of the more transitional in the line with precious little action until the last quarter of the book, which is never the best fodder for a summer blockbuster.  Yates does an incredible job of pacing and restructuring, cutting scenes from the novel more severely than perhaps in any other film, adding harrowing moments that were conducted off page and whittling down to the barest minimum of exposition.  Wisely, the presumption is that people coming to see this film are already familiar with at least the general premise of the Harry Potter books, so not a lot of time is spent on flashback and the movie clicks in seamlessly after Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Voldemort is out of the closet.  No, that wasn’t a reference to the interpretive twirling by He Who Must Not Be Named in Goblet of Fire; I’m talking about the entire wizarding world knowing for a certainty that the evil Dark Lord has resumed his deadly quest for world domination.  Wizards and Muggles alike are falling victim to Lord Voldemort, AKA Tom Riddle, the former Hogwarts student gone terribly wrong.  Hogwarts’ headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, may have found the key to ending of the villain’s reign upon discovering that Voldemort has placed fractions of his life essence inside of various objects that along with that essence can be destroyed, the question is how many and where?  With Harry’s assistance, the answers to those questions will be revealed in Tom Riddle’s acquired memories as the Dark Lord’s past becomes frighteningly close.  Back at school, Harry and his stalwart best pals, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger are going through some harrowing adventures of their own attempting to pass their courses and safely navigate the maze of unreasonable emotions that seems to have taken over every student at Hogwarts.

Hormones aplenty saturate this film.  The most teenagery chapter of the series, Yates leaves in the lovey-dovey bits to fantastic comic effect.  He focuses less on Hermione’s tetchy, academic jealousy after Harry surpasses her grades using crib notes from the Half-Blood Prince of the title, instead centering on her growing romantic jealousy.  This year, Mr. Ron Weasley is the film’s heartthrob, first as the hero of Gryffindor, providing his house with a stunning Quidditch victory, then as a youthful Lothario becoming attached at the lip to the besotted Lavender Brown. (- Oh no, her curly blonde hair and scary attitude don’t remind me one bit of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, not at all.)  Even Harry is feeling the joys of fame; being dubbed “The Chosen One” by the media has the rewards and drawbacks of girls queuing up to be the next Cho Chang, with one going so far as to inject a box of chocolates with a rather strong love potion.  On the polar end of the warm relationships spectrum is emo boy emeritus and perpetual Harry rival, Draco Malfoy.  Impeccably turned out in naff-looking lean black suits; Draco is experiencing very different growing pains.  The failure of his father to carry out the evil Lord Voldemort’s bidding in the last chapter has left the elder Malfoy in Azkaban prison and his family paying the social consequences.  Lord Voldemort makes Lucius pay for his failure with his son’s life, compelling Draco to join the Death Eater clan and carry out a mission of utmost risk and secrecy.  Nothing we’ve seen of the precocious, snobbish boy from the previous five films could prepare us for what is asked of him in this chapter or his difficulty in dealing with it. 

A lot of the pleasant changes in this year’s Harry seems due to Yates allowing Daniel Radcliffe, who is truly becoming a terrific and confident actor, to really put his stamp on The Boy Who Lived, playing him for laughs brilliantly, as in the opening scene where Harry flirts with a comely waitress and later at Hogwarts feeling the buzz of a bottle of Felix Felices.  Finally, Rupert Grint gets to really show off his comedic chops as the hapless, obtuse best bud whose life with the third of their tri, the genius witch Hermione Granger, just got more complicated.  As the besieged Slytherin wunderkind, Tom Felton does a lot with not nearly enough as Draco.  The platinum-haired aristobrat wheels from despair to fury to helplessness at the coil his parents’ association to the Dark Lord has left him in.  There are precious few lines, but every one is delivered with a heft of frustration behind it as is every angst-besought glare.  And then there is Snape…  I pretend no indifference to the charms of Alan Rickman, having had the surreal pleasure of being momentarily having my soul frozen by being within earshot of one of the actor’s withering replies.  With his beguiling portrayal of the creepy, imposing potions professor, Rickman instantly made Severus Snape so much more than J.K. Rowling could’ve imagined.  Finally given some real work to do, albeit in small moments in Half-Blood Prince, we get to see the pernicious teacher (- and anti-Potterist) in more than one layer.  Michael Gambon finally finds his feet as Harry’s unofficial guardian, headmaster Albus Dumbledore.  Finally allowed to convey the humour and caring so evident in the books sorely missing from Gambon’s previous performances, the audience understands Harry’s devotion to the old wizard, despite some very questionable manipulation by the old man.  Newly added to the cast and very welcome is Jessie Cave, who, as Lavender, the girl head-over-heels with her beloved “Won-Won” Weasley, is much funnier than written in the book.  All around the characters are fleshed in properly for what feels like the first time.  It’s that concentration on those personalities that powers Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and makes it feel the closest to capturing the style of J.K. Rowling books.  Yes, Rowling’s descriptions of magic are great fun to read, but I daresay most readers fell in love with and stuck around seven books for the characters. 

Not to say there isn’t an abundance of magical eye candy; the special effects are top-notch and there are fun scenes like the interiors of Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes that are hallmarks of the series.  This time most of the enchantment comes from the production values of this episode; Half-Blood Prince captures much of the beauty and imagination of the art direction of the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and occasionally surpasses it.  The Byzantine silver art deco spiral stairways in the Gothic towers of Hogwarts are simply breathtaking.  The dips into Dumbledore’s Pensieve are drops of ink in liquid literally come to life, etching Lord Voldemort’s past.  Even the Weasley’s ramshackle home is touched with an appropriate amount of Escher-inspired dizziness, highlighting the wackiness within.  The majority of Malfoy’s scenes of inner turmoil are shot in a moody chiaroscuro the twisted wizard’s face only appearing in half-tones most of the time.  Yates makes good use of his filters, filming plenty of emotional scenes in washed-out lighting and framing his shots like Renaissance paintings.  The costumes of the teachers are strangely angular and pointy; their dreary colours making each member look like an Edward Gorey illustration.  Little moments like giving the audience the ability to see through Luna Lovegood’s kaleidoscopic Spectre Specs are thoughtful inclusions.  Details like the permanent fog over Hogwarts and the mists rolling off the mountains give a real fullness to the Hogwarts grounds.  Yates does fantastically with his action sequences, right from the start when the Death Eaters commit all sort of vagaries in both the Muggle and Wizarding world; the twisting and collapse of a bridge over the Thames is gorgeous.  The painful near-crucifixion of a student is heart-stopping and haunting.  On the fun side, Ron Weasley’s Quidditch match is the best one ever filmed in the series.  The arena looks feasible and the actors’ motions don’t look as if they were shot on a green screen.  Harry and Dumbledore’s search inside a booby-trapped mountain lake for one of Voldemort’s magical Horcruxes is jaw-dropping and truly frightening.

Were there moments missed? Certainly: Snape’s big speech should have certainly should have had a lot more to it. The climactic battle at Hogwarts seems an unthinkable omission for a story so light on action and would have done better than the silly trap in the marshes. The lack of mourning for the murder of Sirius Black, Harry’s idolised godfather, slain by the Death Eaters in the previous film felt odd. Maybe it’s just me, but I never pictured the Death Eater werewolf, Fenrir Greyback to resemble a sweaty, balding wrestler. I yearned for the sight of Dumbledore clad in the flamboyant purple zoot suit described in the novel’s flashback to Tom Riddle in the orphanage and instead got a very unremarkable knockoff. I was desperate to hear just one chorus of “Weasley is Our King,” alas, again I was disillusioned. Still, for anyone who doesn’t know the book’s intricate details, this film plays like the enjoyable and entertaining blockbuster it’s meant to be. Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince flies by. The taut pacing and careful arrangement of action, drama and despite bearing some of the darkest moments of series, some truly hysterical moments, only makes you want more when it’s over. It took six films for the Harry Potter films to finally reach its stride and now that we only have one more chapter to go (- Filmed in two parts) and if Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is anywhere as good as Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I just might miss this series when it’s over.



~ The Lady Miz Diva

July 13th, 2009


Click here for our 2007 review (as Mighty Ganesha) of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Click here for our 2010 review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1.





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