Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Review: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince Makes Me So Ready for Deathly Hallows

I'll tell you a secret: I wasn't a fan of the print version of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Book 6 was a tremendous letdown for me after the angst-driven fifth installment. As I recall, I complained to any who would listen that JK Rowling had drawn out a filler piece in a rush to arrive at the final chapter. There were the obvious developments at the end, yes, but the other 500-odd pages seemed of little consequence. I remember feeling the book was built as harried short mission after mission, a whirling ride on the disapparation express with an uncharacteristically (and suspiciously) frantic Albus Dumbledore. It simply wasn't satisfying.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the film adaptation managed to, with surgical precision, locate the story's heart, pull it from the wreckage, and throw it up on screen. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is truly a beautiful film. It works as a compromise between the visual mastery of Alfonso Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban (easily the best in the series) and the humanity of the otherwise underwhelming Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix.
While it's hard to argue that storywise this is little more than an extended set-up for the rollicking events of Deathly Hallows, the film manages to make the most of very little. Director David Yates (whose most notable contribution stateside is the BBC miniseries State of Play) has transformed what is easily the most frustrating piece of the franchise into a breath of fresh air. This is a different sort of Harry Potter film. The expected sequence of events does not factor in. There's no torture with Dudley, no horribly suspicious faculty, no major battle brewing. Hell, even Voldemort is kept at bay. Instead, the hoards of sidecharacters have been stripped away and we are left to focus on the major players. We are given the time to be reintroduced to Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ginny (Bonnie Wright, stepping into the spotlight) and to recall their humble beginnings and their growth into likable young adults suffering the burden of hormones and heavy loads. They are rendered, particularly through the film's artfully methodical pacing, into realistic people whose relationships are delicate and fragile.

The aesthetic fully supports the underlying drama of the film. This is a visually stunning film not so heavily reliant on whimsical effects as it is for a more practical magic. Cinematography and set design are key here, and through filters and lighting the filmmakers have achieved a palpable, flickering darkness. You can feel the storm coming. It's in every scene, no matter how joyous the occasion. There are times, in fact, when it feels more like The Assassination of Jesse James than Harry Potter.
Daniel Radcliffe, for essentially being Harry Potter at this point, seems just a little bit uncomfortable in his role. While he keeps his character thoroughly in line with his other performances, he seems to be holding back. Same with Bonnie Wright. While teenagers in love are awkward as hell, these two stand so rigidly it's like they're playing statues. But then again, maybe that's just good old English reserve.
Emma Watson gets a chance to broaden her range a bit, and Rupert Grint (as usual) is a reliable source of comic relief. Michael Gambon, as second generation Dumbledore, does as much as he can with the reserved Dumbledore without becoming Ian McKellan's Gandalf. Meanwhile, the award for most nuanced perhaps goes to Alan Rickman as the is he or isn't he Severus Snape. While rigidly slimy and monotone as always, Rickman manages to work the eyes and face enough to up the depth of his character and give a hint of what's to be revealed in the final film(s). Jim Broadbent's Professor Slughorn too, is a welcome addition. Overall, even in their weakest moments this cast could beat Twilight's to a pulp.
Overall, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is a success. Better than the source material and visually dazzling, it slips easily into place as the second best film thus far.

4 out of 5.

See all of Wilde.Dash's reviews at (the under construction) Love & Squalor.

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