Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Hey, better late than never, right? I saw the film a second time Friday night and decided I had some thoughts, so here, with your kind indulgence, is my proper review.
God bless Harry Potter. Even if the forthcoming closing entries (the last book will be split into two films) are total dogshit, this will go down as the most creatively successful series in the history of American film. The Half-Blood Prince is the sixth episode in the Potter franchise, and as good as any fantasy film I have seen. What other series can brag of such a strong sixth entry? Six Harry Potter movies, and not a bad one in the bunch. A few — the first and fourth entries, for me — are not as impressive as the others, but that’s about the worst I can say. Name me another film franchise with six solid entries in a row, that hasn’t slowed down but rather has picked up steam along the way. Star Wars? There have been two good Star Wars films, and the newest of them is almost thirty years old. Star Trek? Forget about it. James Bond? Please. I’m not talking box office clout (though Potter is no slouch in that department), I’m talking quality of the work. In that respect, no one touches Harry.
This episode, like the previous one and the next two, was directed by David Yates. Here, as in The Order of the Phoenix, Yates proves that he’s a keen student of filmmaking. He has selected the visual elements of the previous Potter films that work, and through these last two films gradually discarded the rest. This is the best looking Harry Potter movie yet, and — not coincidentally — the one shot and cut with the most restraint. The stories have grown progressively darker with each new film, and this one has the darkest yet. The films have grown up along with their characters, and Hayter subtly reinforces that with a more mature directorial style. The cutesy touches of the early episodes — the moving staircases, the talking paintings — meant to beguile younger audiences, are gone. Instead of moving staircases we get a lovely M.C. Escher shot looking up through several dizzying levels of the Weasley house, and a late shot of Dumbledore’s portrait is a stark reminder of just how still the paintings at Hogwarts have become.
This is also the first film to open without a prologue of Harry with his non-magical foster family in the oppressively ordinary London suburb of Little Whinging. Instead, Harry blows off a date with a waitress to accompany Dumbledore to recruit the bumbling Horace Slughorn to teach the potions class at Hogwarts. Slughorn is valuable for more than his skill as an instructor — he carries a memory that Dumbledore thinks will be crucial to finding and defeating the evil Lord Voldemort. Harry’s assignment for the year is to ingratiate himself to Slughorn and learn what he knows.
But that’s just plot. What makes the Harry Potter films so great is that they aren’t plot-driven, but character-driven. Harry and his friends are 16 now, and dealing with the same problems most 16 year-olds who watch the film will be going through. The movie pays as much attention to the teenage issues — making the team, finding someone to go to the dance with, love and heartbreak — as Dumbledore wryly observes, “Oh, to be young and feel love’s keen sting” — as it does to the magic.
Half-Blood Prince also shows us that its characters, despite their amazing magical abilities, are still capable of feeling wonder, and being amazed by their world. There’s a really beautiful scene where a drunk and melancholy Slughorn describes a gift a student once gave him, a flower petal floating in a bowl of water that sank and transformed into a fish. “It was beautiful magic,” he tells Harry with almost a tear in his eye, “wondrous to behold.” He isn’t just a wizard. He’s a human being.
That’s key. That’s the reason why the Harry Potter series exceeds the more decorated Lord of the Rings trilogy in every category except ponderousness and crushing length. Harry and his friends, their teachers, their enemies are all recognizably human — not just in their appearance, but in their behavior, in their emotions. There’s a truly epic effects shot late in the film, with Harry and Dumbledore standing atop a craggy outcropping of rock in the middle of a dark, rolling sea. It’s as grand as any visual in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies, but so much more impressive because we identify Harry as one of us. He’s not a hobbit or an elf or some other unearthly thing — he’s a 16 year-old kid, and he reacts the same way to the fantastic as we would.
And the bearded, white-haired old wizard standing next to him, underneath his fairy tale costume, is a human being, too. When he talks to Harry, it’s as one person to another. He asks how his classes are, or if there’s anything going on between Harry and Hermione. He wonders if he might borrow a magazine he finds in Slughorn’s bathroom — he does love knitting patterns, you know. No bullshit, elevated faux-Shakespearean language, no phony profundity, no pretensions to high art.
For me, who has watched and enjoyed every Potter film, one of the real pleasures of this episode was the realization that Harry and his friends, who seemingly only yesterday were round-faced sixth-graders, are now the big kids. I loved the early scene of Harry and Ron standing along the wall watching the new first-years crowd through the corridor on their way to class. How they’ve grown. And not just physically, but as actors. Take a second and think of the good fortune of the Harry Potter series. Eight years ago they cast a trio of child actors to play Harry, Ron and Hermione. Here they are six films later, still playing their parts (something original director Chris Columbus glumly predicted wouldn’t happen), and playing them so damn well. All three are in great form here, with Rupert Grint giving a particularly good showing as Ron Weasley, who becomes the star of the quidditch team and finds himself trapped in a sort-of love triangle between Hermione and a girl named Lavender who worships the ground he walks on. Grint and Emma Watson as Hermione also show themselves to be deft hands at comedy, especially when Hermione’s jealousy over Ron’s relationship with Lavender comes boiling to the surface.
Better here than he’s ever been is Daniel Radcliffe as Harry. He’s so comfortable on screen that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. That’s a stupid thing to say, I realize, since he’s the only actor who’s ever played the role, but what I mean to say is, assuming Radcliffe got up and walked away from the series, the producers couldn’t just plug another British kid in glasses in there and keep rolling on. Radcliffe has made Harry his own. Like his co-stars, he’s given some more comedy to play this time than in the last few episodes. Check out the way his characterization changes when Harry drinks the luck potion — his delivery, his posture, everything is different, yet he’s still Harry. That’s harder than it looks, and it takes a talented actor to pull off.
Despite this being the darkest, most dread-soaked episode yet, there’s a lot to laugh at. The broad physical comedy and sight gags of the earlier films are mostly absent; instead, the laughs are gentler, smarter, derived more from character interaction and quick lines that you might easily miss if not paying attention. It’s a very dark humor, too, which I appreciated, especially in what is still ostensibly a kid’s movie (rated PG, ya know). Professor Slughorn has his students brew up a batch of “living death,” for instance, and praises Harry’s batch as so good, “one drop would kill us all!”
Slughorn is played by Jim Broadbent, who joins a cast of outstanding British actors that includes Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, and David Thewlis, and has in the past featured Richard Harris, Gary Oldman, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Imelda Staunton and Brendan Gleason. Broadbent is a fine addition, playing Slughorn as a slightly bumbling old fellow with a twinkle in his eye and a twinge of sadness. The rest of the supporting cast is outstanding as ever, particularly Gambon as Dumbledore, who has not only succeeded the late, great Richard Harris in the part, but exceeded him. Best of all, and with a more important role here than in the last few episodes, is Alan Rickman as Professor Snape. Rickman has a few more serious scenes to play here than usual, which he does splendidly, but the real triumph of his performance, as always, is in the humor he brings to the character. He plays Snape just right, the master of the pregnant pause, and utterly humorless — which makes him the funniest guy in the movie.
So yeah, this is a good one. Is it the best Harry Potter film yet? I don’t know. Maybe. I think I still prefer Order of the Phoenix, but it’s close. Half-Blood Prince is a terrific movie, well acted, visually accomplished, and perfectly balanced in tone, moving confidently from the ridiculous to the gravely serious. If it’s not the best of the Potter series, it’s pretty goddamn close. And it’s definitely the best sixth episode of any film franchise I’m familiar with. The real question, it seems to me, isn’t “Is this the best Potter film?” but rather, “Will there ever be a bad one?”
With this cast and director, I wouldn’t bet on it.