[16 July 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s about time, Harry Potter. It’s about time you manned up, got ready to face the foul demon that destroyed your family, and figured out a way to deal with your fluctuating (and frequently infuriating) hormones. You see, Hogwarts is under attack, Lord Voldemort and his Deatheater minions looking for ways to undermine the school from within and without. And while you’ve been trying to unravel the mystery of your parents’ murder, the forces of evil are gaining a foothold.
Now, thanks to a new Potions Professor, some extracurricular research by your mentor Albus Dumbledore, and your budding infatuation with Ginny Weasley, you seem ready to face your long prophesized destiny. Luckily, director David Yates has given you Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to grow up in. While leisurely paced, it’s emotionally deep. Very deep.
It seems that, as Harry’s sixth year is getting underway, Voldemort via his underlings Bellatrix LeStrange and Narcissa Malfoy are getting the latter’s son Draco to act as assassin. His mission - destroy Dumbledore and with him, Hogwarts. Unsure if the young man will be capable of such a crime, the women convince Professor Severus Snape to make an Unbreakable Vow to protect him. With his fate sealed the duo return to school.
At the same time, Dumbledore is desperate to learn more about Voldemort and his previous human incarnation, Tom Riddle. Realizing there is an old instructor that might be able to help, he gets Harry to help recruit the retired Horace Slughorn. With his special stature as the Chosen One, Dumbledore realizes his former friend can’t refuse. As Draco attempts to carry out his orders, Harry and friends Hermione and Ron find themselves fighting feelings of love - both for others in their class…and each other.
With its casual approach and 150 minute running time, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is in no rush to resolve its many issues. Indeed, this is perhaps the first film in the series that doesn’t make “the quest” (that staple of standard mythology) the most important element in the narrative. Instead, director Yates, returning from his breakneck collage creation known as Order of the Phoenix, has decided to slow things down, the better to allow these overly familiar characters to ripen and mature.
The result is powerful in its emotional pull. Indeed, this may be the first time when we fully grasp the phenomenon created by J. K. Rowling - at least on the big screen. Books allow for their own secret gardens, places where we go to smell the fictional flowers and imagine our own versions of the individuals involved. But unlike previous installments of the series that were only interested in getting the main points of the plot covered, Half-Blood Prince focuses on the personalities involved - and it’s much better for it.
This is Harry Potter for grown ups, the boy wizard and his clever companions given a dramatic heft and cinematic legitimacy they’ve sorely missed before. In Steve Kloves sensational script (after stepping back from Part Five, he’s back to take on the rest of the series that he’s fostered from the start) we get into the intricacies between friends, the growing distraction of the opposite sex, the painful feelings of unrequited love, and the joys of being older and wiser than the incoming classes.
Of course, our heroes are still being challenged by ambiguous elements within the school, but for the most part, Half-Blood Prince is journey of individual fate, not cosmic meaning. For some, this won’t sit right. For them, Harry Potter is all about the spells and supernatural spectacle. Yet save for an opening that shows the Deatheaters destroying a bridge and an ending that pits our lead against a cave full of corpses, the action is kept to a minimum.
It’s amazing how much these actors have grown over the course of this franchise. Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry has never been this vulnerable, this multilayered, this individualized. He less a mirror of the author’s intent and more an interpretation of what the famed boy wizard should be. Similarly, Emma Watson’s Hermione and Rupert Grint’s Ron have become more than just companions. You can feel the chemistry between all three, and sense the unbreakable bonds that will drive the rest of the narrative.
As a series, Potter is famous for bringing on every celebrated British thespian and giving them their individual moment to shine, and Half-Blood Prince is no different. But this time around, its older characters like Snape and Malfoy that really hold our interest. The way Alan Rickman and Tom Felton play their respective roles, we wish there was more of them.
Like any installment in this series, there will be some who don’t like the liberties taken with the material. But unlike Order of the Phoenix which seemed rushed by a desire to skip over details to get to the heart of the story, Half-Blood Prince relishes the smaller bits. It indulges the budding affections of ancillary supporting players and gives old favorites like Hagrid and Professor Minerva McGonagall their own spotlight sequence. As the newest (or perhaps its oldest…) member of the Hogwart’s staff, Jim Broadbent does the dithering English eccentric bit perfectly, even if his character is, like so many in the Potter world, a plot point carried over the course of an entire volume.
And Yates still hasn’t figure out how to bring a sense of urgency to this material. Order of the Phoenix was fashioned as a kind of political thriller. This film, with its various intrigues and corrupt conspiracies would seem the perfect chance for the director to do something epic. Instead, he just meanders along, relying on his cast to get his points across.
Thankfully, they do. In a series that has seen its ups and downs, that has challenged fans and fanatics alike, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a wonderful warm-up for the two part finale to come. It’s like The Empire Strikes Back, digging deeper into this world while never forgetting the mechanics required to keep the entire franchise on track.
Some may prefer the early installments of the series when thinks weren’t so dark and dire, but as with any great story, things must grow desperate before they become better. With the loss of a main character and a continuing cloud of doom and gloom above them, the students at Hogwarts are facing some frightening, fascinating times. Thank God Harry Potter has finally grown up. With this particularly troubling episode under his belt, he’s ready to take on anything.