Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Aside from my love for the Harry Potter story and franchise in general, the films in particular have been fascinating from a filmmaker’s perspective due to their being handed off between multiple directors. Chris Columbus’ workmanlike, unimaginitive Sorceror’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets gave way to Cuaron’s highly stylish Prisoner of Azkaban, which made both the audience and the filmmakers themselves realize that this wasn’t just kid’s stuff and it didn’t have to be rote performances of book summaries. These could be movies.
Goblet of Fire took that ball and ran with it in a slightly different direction, Mike Newell’s British sensibilities being quite different from the raw emotion and psychology that characterizes Cuaron’s work. Then came David Yates.
Order of the Phoenix was Yates’ first feature film, and he had not quite figured out his style. Instead it felt like a pastiche of style from the preceding four films. This perceived lack of either skill or confidence (without seeing a second film from Yates, it was impossible to tell which) made for a somewhat clumsy handling of several important moments, including the death of Sirius Black, which I still think was handled all wrong.
Nonetheless, there were glimmers of very strong stuff in Phoenix — the choice to have no music during the climactic Wizard Battle was an inspired one that struck me powerfully when viewing — and those of us dissatisfied with Phoenix had our fingers crossed that Yates would step up to the plate and knock it out, especially once we read what was coming in Deathly Hallows.
Half-Blood Prince demonstrates, I think, that Yates does indeed have the chops to take this series where it ultimately needs to go.
One of the problems with the early films in the series was that they actually remained too faithful to the books. It’s a problem you see in a lot of adaptations — Watchmen, for example, also comes to mind. The filmmakers are so focused on making sure they hit every single plot/story beat that they neglect the really important part: the emotional beats. So everything happens the way it does in the book, in roughly the same order, but you don’t really care as much because you aren’t as invested in the characters.
Steve Kloves had the benefit of four films and three directors to hone in on this fact, and by Goblet of Fire was really starting to nail it. As such, I believe Phoenix suffered in large part because of Kloves’ absence. First-time Potter scribe Michael Goldenberg started from zero, hewing right up against the book’s letter without translating very much of the spirit; while Yates even at his “less confident” is a more skilled director than Chris Columbus, the screenplay of Phoenix felt like it belonged alongside Stone and Chamber, more than Azkaban or Goblet.
Fortunately for the series, Steve Kloves returned for Half-Blood Prince (and the two-part Deathly Hallows), and the difference is obvious. Kloves knows Harry Potter, and with the benefit of having the entire story finally finished, he also knows exactly what he must keep and what is optional.
As a result, Half-Blood Prince — the darkest chapter of the story thus far put to film — is also the funniest. One of the reasons I believe the Harry Potter books are so popular is their sense of humor, something that had previously not come across very successfully in the films. But with Kloves back at the keyboard, having the confidence (and Rowling’s blessing) to take some liberties with the words in order to get most faithfully the meaning of them, we get an extraordinarily funny, extraordinarily heartfelt film.
One of Cuaron’s greatest legacies to the franchise, I think, is the introduction of “casual magic.” In the first two films, any time something magical happened there was a swell of music, the camera would push in, bright lights would shine and everybody’s eyes would go all wide and wondrous.
What Cuaron seemed to realize was that, in the wizarding world, these things aren’t particularly wondrous or surprising. So in Azkaban, you have many occasions where something odd or magical will be happening off to the side of frame, or in the background, or out of focus — treating it more like he is shooting a film in a real world, one where magic is as common as lighting a match. It feels less staged, less dramatized, and more like a real place with real problems. Of the films since then, I believe Prince has benefitted most from this treatment of the magical world.
If you haven’t watched the previous five films, Half-Blood Prince has no interest in bringing you up to speed. It wastes no time with reiterating exposition or re-introducing characters or concepts, you had just better goddamn know. This is the smart way to do it, in my opinion, the confident way. This assumed familiarity with the world allows them to dive right into furthering the relationships of the characters, and their attempts to understand their place in a big and dangerous world.
The returning cast, in the hands of a more confident David Yates, turn in the best performances of the series. Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry is nuanced and real, no longer reciting lines with emphatic arm gestures as he did in the early days, and his goofy confidence after drinking the felix felicitas is very funny. Rupert Grint has stopped mugging for the camera and manages to be a more relatable comic relief figure, and Emma Watson’s eyebrows are once more under control. You can feel the genuine chemistry and affection that the three of them have built over a lifetime of playing these characters together, and it’s quite moving.
Alan Rickman, as always, is the only Snape there could ever be — and as always, I wanted more screen time from him. We spend a lot of time with Draco Malfoy, and finally see him as something more than just a sneering antagonist, but as the tortured boy who just isn’t as bad as everyone — except Dumbledore — expects him to be. Potter newcomer Jim Broadbent is brilliant as the well-meaning but desperately insecure Horace Slughorn, bringing one of the most hilarious moments in the film (a moment with absolutely no dialogue).
Most importantly, though, I feel like they finally nailed Albus Dumbledore. The character has been mostly near-misses at best — Richard Harris phoned it in, and Gambon’s take on it ranged from bizarrely aloof in Azkaban to furious and embittered in Phoenix. Half-Blood Prince is the first time that Dumbledore felt like he does all through the books — a man with the weight of knowledge on his shoulders, but one with a sense of humor about it, and an occasionally dirty mind; one who loves Harry as he would his own child, and feels the heartache of wanting to spare Harry from his destiny but knowing he can’t. A Dumbledore who is, for all his incredible powers and wisdom, distinctly human.
I’m focusing on the characters and the performances because the film, like the book, is actually rather light on plot. There are really only two things that this particular installment needs to accomplish in the big picture: introduce the concept of Horcruxes, and — spoiler alert — bump off Dumbledore (and, in so doing, establish that nowhere, not even Hogwarts, is safe anymore). The titular “Half-Blood Prince” storyline is really quite minimal, such that when the identity of the Prince is finally revealed it’s less of a shock and more of a “…so?”
But the filmmakers wisely use this to their advantage, taking the one opportunity they have to make a film that is primarily a character drama. Deathly Hallows is a furious race to the finish line, and even splitting it into two movies, there’s not much opportunity to build characters and relationships.
Overall, I felt that Prince made up for a number of previously missed opportunities (and also managed to drop in some set-up that had been overlooked in previous films) — not only in plot and character, but also in tone and personality. While not the most important installment in the overall story, the film adaptation of Half-Blood Prince is the one that has most perfectly captured the, ahem, magic of the books, and gives me great confidence and excitement for the two-part conclusion of this astonishing cinematic achievement.