Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Director : David Yates
Screenplay : Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Michael Gambon (Professor Albus Dumbledore), Jim Broadbent (Professor Horace Slughorn), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), Alan Rickman (Professor Severus Snape), Jessie Cave (Lavender Brown), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Warwick Davis (Professor Filius Flitwick), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Maggie Smith (Professor Minerva McGonagall)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth entry in the now eight-part film series based on J.K. Rowling’s much beloved novels, marks the return of screenwriter Steve Kloves, who, with the exception of the last film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, has adapted each of Rowling’s novels for the screen. Kloves’ approaches to adapting the increasingly complex world of Potter have varied, from the slavishly devoted scene-for-scene transposition in the first two films for director Chris Columbus, to a fairly radical and effective streamlining of The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) for director Alfonso Cuarón (not incidentally still the best film in the series). When he handed the reigns over to Michael Goldenberg for Order of the Phoenix (2007), the result was a film that felt rushed and chunky and wore its excisions a little too openly.
Unfortunately, even with Kloves resuming his writing duties, the same is largely true of The Half-Blood Prince, which despite having a longer running time and a shorter source novel than its predecessor, still feels narratively awkward at times and loses huge chunks of Rowling’s original story and characters without finding effective cinematic replacements. It is by no means a bad movie--after all, as I’ve said before, the material is so rich that you would have to go out of your way to truly botch the job--but it does feel a tad disappointing, especially since the release date had been pushed back by seven months, resulting in one of the longest gaps (two full years!) between Potter films.
As the penultimate narrative in the series, The Half-Blood Prince works primarily as set-up for the big finale (which we will get on screen in two parts, one in 2010 and one in 2011). On page at least, this involved a great deal of scenes in which the wise Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) invites Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) to view various “memory traces” to help to flesh out the tortured history of young Tom Riddle, who would eventually grow up to become the dreaded dark wizard Voldemort. At the behest of returning director David Yates, a veteran of British television who is currently helming the final two films as well, most of this material has been excised in favor of a focus on the book’s subplots, many of which are admittedly quite entertaining. This particularly benefits Potter’s best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), who had little to do in the previous film. In The Half-Blood Prince their relationship, which has always been based on the kind of mutual antagonism that is fertile soil for blossoming romance, takes one of the center stages, and the film benefits from it enormously. Ron is also featured in two other subplots, one involving his newfound prowess playing Quidditch, the mid-air wizarding version of rugby that here finds its most satisfying visual presentation from a special-effects standpoint, and one in which he becomes romantically involved with a comically obsessive fellow student (Jessie Cave). Teenage romance is one of the film’s driving emphases, both seriously in the romantic attraction between Harry and Ron’s blossoming younger sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) and comically in Ron’s accidental consumption of a particularly powerful love potion.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a new Harry Potter story without a new professor, and this time around we get Horace Slughorn, who is played with cartoonish comic verve by Jim Broadbent. Slughorn, a portly, self-possessed man who is fond of “collecting” the most gifted students as his personal friends, is pulled out of retirement to fill the role of potions master at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry mainly because he has a memory that is crucial to understanding Voldemort. And, while the Dark Lord does not appear on-screen except in flashbacks as a student, his minions are all about, including the cackling and witchy Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, clearly enjoying herself) and Harry’s fellow student and arch-rival Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), who is well on his way to becoming one of Voldemort’s nefarious Death Eaters (in this regard, I must retract something I wrote about Felton being “too cute” in my review of the first film in the series; he has developed into a young man with a lean, mean face worthy of someone name Malfoy).
Yates again proves to have a grandiose cinematic sense, and he puts together several impressive sequences, including an opening attack on a London bridge and a journey to the heart of a lake hidden inside a cave that it worthy of a great British horror movie. Yet, while the film has its moments of visual elegance and a dark, grayish tone that visually reflects the darkening times to come, as a whole it feels much like The Order of the Phoenix with its lack of narrative rhythm and jumbled sense of forced plot points that leave ravenous Potter fans griping about what’s been left out and those poor souls who haven’t read the books perpetually confused. The story hangs together, but the holes are so gaping and the seams so ragged at times that they’re all you really notice.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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