2000s, British cinema, Fantasy, Foreign

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

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Director: David Yates

By Roderick Heath

David Yates’ unexpectedly splendid third feature and his second Harry Potter film, sees a director come of age as a wielder of imagery and a buckaroo adept at handling a cast of Britain’s most fearsome character actors. More than that, Yates and writer Steve Kloves finally provide a fitting follow-up to Alfonso Cuaron’s reinvention of the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) in the intensity of its fantastic imagery and the quality of its engagement with its characters. This is characterised, oddly enough, by a level of dry, keen-witted restraint rare enough in a blockbuster.

Episode six begins with the shadowy threat of Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters beginning to assail even the Muggle world, destroying an appropriately new-school target, the Millennium Bridge, and wreaking general havoc. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), idling away the summer still haunted by the death of his godfather Sirius Black, is flirting with a railway café waitress when he’s summoned away by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). He’s to play a part in extracting from Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), a teacher summoned out of retirement by Dumbledore, a crucial memory involving Slughorn’s one-time student, Tom Riddle, the future Voldemort. The memory may just hold the secret to curtailing Voldemort’s capacity to return from the dead. Meanwhile, perpetual foil Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has been recruited to arranging the infiltration of Hogwarts by the Death Eaters, led by the sibilant bitch-queen Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) in an assassination attempt on Dumbledore. Snape (Alan Rickman), the great series question-mark, has been forced by Bellatrix and her sister, Draco’s mother, Narcissa (Helen McCrory), into a pact to kill Dumbledore if Draco can’t.

The second-last instalment (not counting the fact that The Deathly Hallows will be split in half) was faced with significant problems. J. K. Rowling’s book, though sporting an impressive, wrenching finale, was one of the lumpier and least focused entries, with few set pieces and a lot of Pensieve flashbacks, so the film of it seemed doomed to place-holder status. Oddly enough, this seems to have made the filmmakers more confident in compressing the plot and expanding on the interaction between the characters. The film’s single greatest scene, perhaps of the whole series thus far, sports Harry, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), and newbie Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) mourning over the corpse of a giant spider. Hagrid’s distraught, Slughorn is befuddled and opportunistic in trying to gain a vial of the spider’s venom, and Harry, jubilant as a coke-fiend under the influence of liquid luck; the three of them perform a kind of awkward funeral service, after which Hagrid and Slughorn get roaring drunk, and the teacher tearily, drunkenly confesses his darkest shame to Harry.

This couplet of scenes that alchemises something priceless out of the material and the actors, capturing the qualities that make Rowling’s creation so beloved—the rich sense of the English traditions of droll black humour and wonderment in the banal, attachment to both the fantastic and the familiar, the emotional, and the just plain weird. But what’s really intrigued me about Rowling’s creation is its basis in a peculiarly British sensibility, and not just the cutesy one that’s on the surface. The evocation of the WWII era in UK speculative fiction is a cliché, from John Wyndham’s Blitz atmosphere in novels like The Day of the Triffids through to the single greatest Doctor Who episode, “Genesis of the Daleks” (1975), with its outer space SS and eugenicist supervillain.

Although Voldemort, in his bleak background, genocidal intent, and general megalomania, is undoubtedly Hitleresque, Rowling’s atmosphere is rather more Cold War, constantly evoking another buried shadow in the British psyche—the betrayal of its esteemed institutions by the Soviet moles Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, and Donald MacLean, who sprang out of precisely the sort of close-knit public school atmosphere Rowling’s series celebrates, and gouged a hole deep in both left- and right-wing psyches. Thus, the Death Eaters all share a radical commitment that’s built around an assumption of their own superiority. Tellingly, both Harry and Voldemort are defined by a sense of lost lineage that places them each ill at ease in either the patrician or plebeian schemes; Muggle-born Hermione desperately attempts to overachieve to find her place in the scheme of things.

Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1986), written by Chris Columbus, was probably the reason for Columbus being the initial choice to helm the series. That film is startlingly similar to Rowling’s creation, rather more so than the commonly cited Star Wars series, with two-boys-one-girl trio of heroes in a boarding school unearthing a conspiracy involving their own teachers, one of whom, Anthony Higgins’ Professor Rath, destined to reinvent himself as lifelong nemesis Moriarty. Columbus, however, was not as good a director as Spielberg or Levinson, and his opening pair of films were all gee-whiz mugging. Still, I was intrigued enough to take up the books. I soon realised Rowling, for all her limitations as a writer, had two great gifts: real emotional intricacy and a genius for plotting, gifts that kept me going through the acres of not very amazing this-adolescent-life satire.

This is perhaps why Cuaron’s much-admired entry irritated me as much as it impressed. For all Cuaron’s lovely visual embellishments, he buggered up the fundamental thrill of the moment when Rowling’s clockwork plot and manipulated perspective clicked into alignment. Rowling’s commitment to watching the world through Harry’s eyes became a liability that badly hurt the last two books (the terminus for Snape’s subplot in The Deathly Hallows was criminally clumsy), a problem that Yates and Kloves solve with dexterity here, boding well for the thunderous conclusion to come. The finale is sublimely handled with a sense not just of spectacle, but also of threat and mystery, as Dumbledore and Harry risk life and limb to rescue an object that proves to be a fake. The sequence is realised with startling visual invention and a fit sense of minimalism by Yates, from black waters teeming with grotesque skeletal wraiths to the blinding swirls of Dumbledore’s roaring fire-magic imbued with a genuine sense of evil and wonderment. Hail the uniquely sadomasochistic moment in which Harry fulfils Dumbledore’s promise of making him pour litres of potion down his throat that fill his paternal teacher with screaming self-loathing, and a confrontation between Harry and Snape that’s been pared down from giddy free-for-all to a singularly dark nonbattle.

It’s a conclusion that outlines how comfortable Yates is here in turning good literature into intelligent cinema, a shot in the arm desperately needed to stop ambling its way to a conclusion as a glorified advertising hoarding. Yates’ debut feature, a fine piece of bittersweet Victoriana, The Tichborne Claimant (1998), was a tale that treated an unremitting account of social revenge on presumptive social climbers with the lightest dust of magic realism. Likewise, The Half-Blood Prince has the same keen sense of how to weave the corporeal and the ethereal, the social and the fantastic in terms of Rowling’s crucial conception of the two being confoundingly complex, requiring young folk to become map-makers of their own existence. Yates is also unafraid to embrace horror-movie chic as his stylistic avatar for the series’ intended maturity, quoting J-horror, George Romero, and Hammer horror, sporting a sequence in which Harry and crush Ginny Weasely (Bonnie Wright) combat Bellatrix and werewolf henchman Fenrir Greyback (Dave Legeno) in a swamp that’s straight out of Terence Fisher. Carter seems to be channelling Sweeney Todd costar Johnny Depp in her eccentric lurches of manner and diction, and she’s a gas whenever on screen, which, alas, isn’t enough.

The Harry Potter franchise demands attention, not just for the scale of its appeal and success, or even for just being expansive, easygoing fun in an increasingly jarring, bullying era of event movies, but because after six instalments and nine years, the series is something that’s never really been done before in Hollywood. Even some close cousins I came up with—the Weissmuller/O’Sullivan Tarzan films, the Connery-Bond films of the 60s, the Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub series—don’t quite compare because they didn’t sport as sophisticated a running story as the Potter episodes, nor the same unity of production elements maintained over such a length of time, including a steadily aging core cast whose actions and reactions have become as familiar as old friends, working with defined stories whilst also existing in a state of flux and volatility dictated by the way time affects both cast and audience.

Thus The Half-Blood Prince takes advantage of the expansion of the acting talents of its three principal stars. Daniel Radcliffe, who’s played stoic heroism with increasing obviousness, has his best moments when his consumption of distilled luck remakes him momentarily as almost drunkenly chirpy, allowing him to give his character an assertive eccentricity it otherwise lacks. Emma Watson as the girl-nerd Hermione who doesn’t realise what a babe she’s grown into, broken up by her growing, unrequited ardour for Ron Weasley, has a newly light touch; and Rupert Grint has undeniable potential, stretched here in moments such as when Ron is temporarily befuddled by a love potion that reduces him to a grinning git that leads to a priceless piece of wordless acting when he’s brought around and his love-sick smile faces into mere sickness. Beyond that trio, the series stalwarts, from Maggie Smith’s perpetual recasting as Miss Jean Brodie to Rickman’s perfect Snape, are in top form. Broadbent’s fusty, fogged Slughorn is so perfect it’s a damned shame he’s never been in the series before, and Evanna Lynch’s lovable dingbat Luna Lovegood steals every scene she’s in.

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