Jul 19, 2009

Review Post 34: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

DIR: David Yates
CAST: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson,
Michael Gambon, Bonnie Wright

Not having read the books I can’t comment on how closely Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince resembles its source, but as a film the sixth entry in this globe conquering franchise is all but plotless. The magic based plot can be summed up in a single sentence – Harry finds out what a horcrux is. That’s not a lot for a 153 minute film, but this isn’t a film about plot so much as it is about character and mood.

This is director David Yates’ second crack at the Potter universe, and he seems to have settled into it completely. This is a film with a loose and easy feel, despite the weighty events and ever-darkening tone. It’s also a film that, despite having little in the way of plot and running to a very considerable length, never feels slow or stretched. Yates directs with economy, using the extensive special effects not just to distract the audience or to wow them, but because they help to tell the story and put us in the world of the film. He shows a great aptitude for shooting action too, there are several big action set pieces here and each one has its own particular identity, but more importantly each one thrills, transporting the audience to the edge of their seats. Not for this film the endless close ups and barrage of cutting that mars many a recent action movie. Yates has a real grasp of the geography of his scenes and he uses that to his great advantage, making the space in which the action takes place key to each sequence.

More than actions though this entry in the franchise is about its characters, in a way that the more plot heavy entries since Prisoner of Azkaban haven’t seemed to have the time to be. Yates was brought in primarily for his work with actors on his various TV projects, and he has certainly punched up the performances of his still very young cast. It has been an interesting thing, watching the cast grow over the past decade, and they have all matured into solid performers who seem utterly at ease in their roles. Daniel Radcliffe was always, for me, the weak link in the main cast. Even as late as Order of the Phoenix his readings were just that - readings - the dialogue never seemed to come from a natural place. It seems that intensive training to play Alan Strang in West End and Broadway productions of Eqqus has really benefited Radcliffe. There’s so much more depth and immediacy to his performance here, for the first time it feels like he’s really going through what Harry is going through, rather than playing pretend. He’s especially outstanding in a late scene in which he has to make Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore drink a liquid that painfully poisons him, the pain coursing through Harry at this point, and the struggle that doing this is for him, absolutely palpable in Radcliffe’s performance.

Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, as Hermione and Ron, are a bit sidelined in this film and removed from most of the action, but they too are excellent. The long-brewing feelings that Hermione has for Ron are coming to the surface in this film and, while it’s broadly written, Watson plays that story with real sensitivity and emotion. She has a beautifully written scene in which Hermione cries on Harry’s shoulder, and she brings real emotional depth to it; strength of feeling that leaps off the screen and is impossible to remain unmoved by. She’s also still the most natural of the central trio; even her most difficult moments in the film have a completely unforced feel about them, and her emotions are always right there for us to read. Grint has the most overtly comic role. There’s always been less depth to Ron, and he hasn’t advanced a great deal as a character. Grint is a strong comedian though; his timing is terrific and he fulfills his role in the film with skill. The real surprise of Half Blood Prince, from a performance standpoint, is Bonnie Wright’s turn as Ron’s sister, and Harry’s new love-interest, Ginny. It’s another beautifully written storyline, with a lot of strong moments between the two, but it is really given life by Radcliffe and Wright, who have an easy chemistry together and seem to complement each other as performers. Their one kiss is one of the film’s best moments; sweet, tender and romantic - a great way to realise something that franchise fans have likely been waiting to see.

In a large ensemble you do have to take the rough with the smooth, and there is some rough here; Michael Gambon’s still bizarrely accented Dumbledore is better used in this film, but I still have trouble getting past that meandering voice that seems to have a new accent on every word. Tom Felton is as resolutely wooden as the cupboard he spends a lot of time interacting with as Draco Malfoy, while Alan Rickman’s previously entertaining performance as Snape has now become pure pantomime, with endless pauses inserted into his dialogue more or less at random. It’s an odd fit in a film whose performance style is otherwise far more downbeat and realistic.

Half Blood Prince does a delicate balancing act, and does it brilliantly. The film is as much a romantic comedy - often farcical in nature - as it is a horror film (though one suitable for older children) about the coming final battle between good and evil and Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves skillfully weave the two together. During the more comedic first half of the film the encroaching darkness is an ever-present undercurrent, and when the thrills really begin to take over, especially with an excellent sequence added for the film, in which the Weasley’s house is destroyed by Death Eaters, it never forgets that this isn’t just about things going boom, that that’s meaningless if you don’t care about the people who are put in harm’s way. It is a difficult balance to get right, but Half Blood Prince succeeds unequivocally, with both elements working both on their own terms - the comedy is funny and the action is involving and sometimes scary - and as a whole.

Since Prisoner of Azkaban the Harry Potter series has had a very particular visual look. Alfonso Cauron took the colourful world that Chris Columbus had helped create and plunged it into darkness, and it has lived there ever since. Yates’ film is perhaps the darkest and the best looking Potter to date; it is shrouded in shadow and smoke and has several really creepy images - one sequence towards the end has a horde of creatures reminiscent of The Descent. Yet this darkness is not drab, Yates fashions, with the help of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and various effects houses, some truly memorable images. A dark, skull shaped, cloud hovering over Hogwarts, the opening collapse of London’s Millennium Bridge, the whole of Hogwarts with their wands in the air and that aforementioned kiss among them.

This is one of the best blockbusters to come along in a very long time; every aspect is skillfully crafted from the screenplay, direction and special effects to the wide range of excellent performances. The problems are all small niggles (too little of Evanna Lynch’s charming and funny Luna Lovegood, for instance), and comprehensively outweighed by the strengths of this highly enjoyable film. In the wake of the awful summer we've had at the movies this year this film is a real joy, it passes its two and a half hours with lightning speed and engages at every turn. It’s easily the best of the series to date and has me breathless with anticipation for the final act.

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