22 July 2009

Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince


This blog hasn't been around all that long, so I'll quickly take you through my top five Harry Potter films... of the first five...

5. The Chamber of Secrets- A change in tone from the first film was really needed here, but Chris Columbus is unable to provide it. Though it's supposed to be darker and leaner, the same "throw everything at the screen" approach jars a lot more in this one. It's still enjoyable, but it's the most unwieldy of the series to date.


4. The Philosopher's Stone- Columbus got the tone just right with this one though, to create a modern family classic. This is the kind of film that'll be on telly every bank holiday in 20 years time, but could've benefited from slightly less reverent adaptation of the source material in order to improve the pace a little.


3. The Order of the Phoenix- The worst, slowest and most under-edited book of the series becomes one of the most enjoyable films. David Yates gives us the shortest Potter film, but he knows exactly what the story needs on-screen. He does struggle on account of the lack of actual events in this story, but it's certainly enjoyable.


2. The Goblet of Fire- A lot more action-packed than any other film in the series, and it's probably the most well-received film for that. By the logic of it being as good as the sum of its parts, it ought to be my favourite, starring David Tennant and Jarvis Cocker as it does. It doesn't trump Azkaban, but it's one of the highlights of the series.


1. The Prisoner of Azkaban- Alfonso Cuaron gives us the best film of the series to date. Brilliant, beautiful and memorable- he's not afraid to chop scenes to make the story more cinematic, and it pays off. Brilliantly acted, wonderfully directed- sublime.


So there we are with the films to date. And the biggest thing around at the moment is of course the sixth instalment out of eight (still not sure about them splitting the last book into two films, but there we go), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. For those of you who merely, horror of horrors, skim these reviews to get my opinion (you know who you are!), I've seen the film three times in the week since it opened, so that should give you an idea of how I enjoyed it.

This is the point where I usually warn you that the review contains a spoiler or two, but nothing crucial, story wise. Instead I'm assuming that if you're reading this, you're a Harry Potter fan, and have either seen the film or read the book on which it's based. SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW.

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE

Who's in it? Daniel Radcliffe (December Boys... and the last five Potter films), Rupert Grint (Driving Lessons... and the last five Potter films), Emma Watson (Ballet Shoes... and the last five Potter films), Michael Gambon (Brideshead Revisited) and Jim Broadbent (The Young Victoria)

What's it all about? Another year at Hogwarts, naturally, but now we're headed for the climax of the series. Having spent all of the last film being blissfully ignorant of everything that's happened to Harry (Radcliffe), the world can no longer ignore the return of Lord Voldemort, and now they're panicking. Dumbledore (Gambon) decides to take a greater hand in Harry's education, Ron (Grint) and Hermione (Watson) get more and more hormonally charged and a returning professor (Broadbent) has a dark secret. Elsewhere, Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape have secrets of their own...

Any good? The main criticisms levelled at Half-Blood Prince have whinged about two things- how inaccessible it is to newcomers, and how much has been changed from the book. Firstly, this is the sixth Harry Potter film- you can't just wander in and expect to know what's going on at this story-heavy point of the series. While I'm all for franchises that have sequels like Indiana Jones or James Bond, this is an eight-film undertaking, and we're beyond the point of standalone adventures. Secondly... it's the sixth Harry Potter film. If you can't deal with the changes from the book by now, then don't watch them- stick to the books. In any case, that's why a lot of so-called fans disliked Order of the Phoenix, and this has the same director, David Yates. For me, Yates is the right man to round off the series (and he will be), and many of his changes are perfectly sensible.

That said, the two major additions could have been executed better, in my opinion. The book has vague mention of a bridge being destroyed by Death Eaters before the narrative begins, in a scene where the Minister for Magic talks to the Muggle UK Prime-Minister. The film shows the bridge collapse, but omits the PM scene, which has the consequence of a barn-storming opening that seems to have little or no consequence on the rest of the film. Likewise, the attack on the Weasleys' house at Christmas adds a nice little action beat to a story that's largely cerebral, but seems ultimately pointless. Yes, it shows that Harry isn't safe anywhere, but readers will know that the house has to be repaired by the start of the next film. Such additions seem unimportant when you consider that the title is The Half-Blood Prince and certain details are cut from the final revelation that will leave people who have only seen the films wondering what a Half-Blood Prince is and why Snape is one. This is trifling when you see how the filmmakers focused on the bigger plot elements, and the fans would surely have been up in arms even more if the title was changed to take significance off that subplot?


While Chris Columbus introduced the story eight years ago with brightly lit corridors and whimsical loveliness at Hogwarts, Yates has followed JK Rowling's path of maturing with the initial target audience by toning down the lighting considerably for this one. Be that to emphasise the darkening world as wizards prepare for war or to provide hiding places for the adolescent fumblings of the now sexually mature students, the cinematography is, as ever, beautiful to look at. But this darkness only makes the comedy even more impressive- that Yates has counterbalanced the comedy and tragedy of Half-Blood Prince speaks volumes for his suitability to direct the ending of the series. Because I will say it, Half-Blood Prince is a very funny film, funnier in fact than some of the lamer comedies out this year. You'll laugh more at this for instance than at, say, 17 Again.

While it certainly has many comedic parts, it's considerably more scary than any of the other films in the series thus far, and with the exception of a couple of scenes in the last book, I can't see the next two films getting any scarier. It doesn't balance comedy and horror in the same way as Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, in which the scares are funny, and so I picked the picture above from a scene that illustrates the balance well. It's the midpoint between two very different scenes- the three friends have just left the local pub, and Hermione's stumbling down the snowy lane looking very tipsy indeed, her arms round her two best friends. A scream shatters the moment as just ahead of them, one of their classmates becomes an accidental victim of dark magic and is thrown into the air like a ragdoll, there to levitate in a wide-open silent howl. The tone changes within a second from funny to scary with much more effect than your bog-standard horror movie jump scare, and it's brilliantly directed. Yates also really gets comedy- this isn't the comedy you got in the first few films that was distinctly mawkish and "Oh, isn't Ron a pussy? Let's hear him squeal amusingly at mortal peril!"


On the contrary, the comedic side of things is achieved in no small part by the fantastic performances on show in this instalment. Daniel Radcliffe continues to be the one with the best acting chops of the three young leads, but Rupert Grint has become a formidable comedy actor. His timing and delivery is hilarious to watch throughout. The weak link is Emma Watson again, but she's become distinctly less stilted as the films have gone along, and she's about the only one of the trio I can't really see continuing to blaze a trail in acting once the films are over. Also problematic amongst the more prominent younger actors was Bonnie Wright as Ginny Weasley. It feels natural that Harry should be attracted to her in the book, but there's a distinct lack of chemistry between Radcliffe and Wright, so it just seems sudden and out of place. I do blame this on a lack of foresight when initially casting her in the first film- Emma Watson is the one whose beauty is raved about, whereas the original characters had Hermione more on the plain-Jane side of things than the more popular and attractive Ginny.

Amongst the adult cast, the performances are terrific as expected, and Jim Broadbent is brilliant as ever, bringing two dimensions to Slughorn- the bumbling socialite who gleefully hobnobs with the best and brightest at Hogwarts, and a washed-up old man who's out of touch with all his old buddies and left trying to repent for his biggest failing in life, a secret he's kept for 50 years. As for the rest of the cast, the series' veterans, such as Dame Maggie Smith, get a lot more to do. Michael Gambon makes it count with his last proper performance as Albus Dumbledore. Everything I enjoy about his portrayal as opposed to Richard Harris' is brought to the fore in this one as he finally takes centre-stage. And as assassins gather all around him, Alan Rickman is another brilliant actor who takes a larger role here- his performances as Snape thus far have been consistently brilliant but increasingly thankless, but it's marvellous to watch him at work here.


However, the real revelation amongst the film's performances is Tom Felton's- no longer the sneering stereotyped bully, Draco Malfoy is a fully-rounded human being assigned to a mission he cannot possibly bring himself to complete. His performance here is just marvellous, and the audience will care about Malfoy in a way they might not have from reading the book. Specifically I'm talking about two scenes. Firstly, the scene where Malfoy sees that a classmate he inadvertently cursed while on his mission for Voldemort has made a full recovery, and flees to a bathroom to have a nervous breakdown, believing she'll name him and he'll be discovered. The intensity of this scene is the first time you really properly sit up and take notice of Tom Felton's acting, and it picks up for the second of the aforementioned scenes, after the big death in the film. Having been unable to finish his mission, he's led from Hogwarts, his home for most of the last six years, by the Death Eaters, as Helena Bonham Carter's delightfully deranged Bellatrix Lestrange gleefully smashes up the place. There's a shot that shows Malfoy watching her, and we see that he knows he's chosen his side in the wizarding war, and that there's no way back from this. Neither scene has any dialogue, but he acts it absolutely brilliantly.

There's a lot I want to mention about the film but haven't- the curse of being a real Potter-head whose favourite book of the series is the one on which this is based. Even though I'm winding down without mentioning the actor who played Gryffindor jock Cormac McClaggan, the terrific direction of the Pensieve scenes and the way the film finally makes Quidditch interesting beyond the novelty value of the special effects, you can take it as read that I really enjoyed this film. It doesn't trump the watermark of the series to date, Prisoner of Azkaban, but Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a film that consistently ups the stakes in anticipation of the inevitable final battle, and balances comedy with horror and tragedy better than any other film I've seen this year.



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Here's the part where I normally tell you what's coming next for the blog- that revamp is still on the way, pending the completion of artwork, but that aside, I can't really tell you what's left to review at present. This week's new releases, The Proposal and Bruno- Snipped (the version of the recent comedy that's been cut down to get a 15 certificate) don't particularly appeal to me, because both will instil me with a sense that I've seen them before, albeit for different reasons.

I know that next week we have G-Force, The Taking of Pelham 123 and Land of the Lost, all of which I will be reviewing, but that's next Friday. So at a guess, I'd say my post-mortem of the summer season will be next up on here. But who knows?

Until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch,
Mark

Thanks to Fearn Sobers for MovieGoat artwork- visit fesoes.net for more of her artwork.

1 comment:

Jasmin said...

Mhmm this Potter review was practically edible. Alan was divine. Agree with you on most points tbh especially Tom Felton. He put so much feeling into what was practically a non-speaking part. Brilliant young actor. I can't wait to see him go on to bigger things...hopefully he will keep his blonde hair :)