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Non-Review Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince represents a fairly significant improvement in quality from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It seems the movie franchise is finally getting a handle on this sort of serialised story-telling, as the movie serves more as a collection of sub-plots leading into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows than it does as a story in its own right. However, there’s a sense that the series is getting a bit better at balancing all the competing demands for screentime, and it even manages to explain the title mystery, albeit in a slightly off-hand manner (almost as an after-thought).

Storm clouds are gathering over Hogwarts...

It goes without saying that, by this stage in the series, the books were getting bigger and the delineation between individual instalments was getting smaller. So I honestly can’t imagine the sheer scale of dread that must face a writer when the gigantic novel is plonked down on the table in front of them, and they are instructed to whittle it down to a two-and-a-bit-hour movie for the audience’s viewing pleasure. How do you prioritise everything so as to determine what gets kept and what gets discarded? Particularly given the fact that there are fans out there more than willing to tear you limb from limb for omitting their favourite character, scene or line of dialogue.

In fairness, I think David Yates is feeling a bit more comfortable with the series after his bumpy first movie. In fact, the film feels considerably more comfortable in its own skin than its direct predecessor. The movie is still desaturated to the point where it’s occasionally difficult to see things, but at least the franchise isn’t taking itself so seriously that it is afraid to smile, lest anyone fail to take it seriously. There’s an element of self-awareness as Dumbledore takes Harry on a special mission, and wonders why the student hasn’t bothered to ask for handy exposition. “Actually sir,” Harry explains, “after all these years, I just sort of go with it.” A moment later, as things seem amiss, Michael Gambon channels his inner television cop to order, “Wands out, Harry.” That’s before they find a wizard disguised as a chair, and Dumbledore does his best impression of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to put a ruined house back together.

The team are on fire here...

It’s moments like this, and a wonderfully lively trip to a wizard joke store, that prove that – even in the darkest of times – there is still light to be found if one is willing to look hard enough. It’s telling that this film features perhaps the most emotionally-charged climax of the series, but is not afraid to indulge in a little bit of levity. After all, dark is only really dark when it’s in sharp contrast to light. I think the last movie was prone to forget that from time to time.

The movie has a variety of different plot threads going, as seems to be the norm in the later instalments. Perhaps the most successful follows Professor Horace Slughorn. It’s notable that this time the new recruit isn’t teaching “Defenses Against the Dark Arts”, or “the lowest job security in the history of the world”, as it is probably know in wizard circles. Anyway, as played by Jim Broadbent, Slughorn is a rather wonderfully drawn and flawed wizard in the style of Lockhart and Quirrel before him. In this case, he “collects” past students like possessions, and then leverages them for his own sense of self-worth, hoping for “talented, famous and powerful” students who “make the shelf” in his room. It’s also fairly heavily implied that he sells obscure magic items on the black market in order to keep himself in the style to which he has become accustomed.

I can't stand all these teen angst nonsense...

I have grown quite fond of the adult supporting cast in the movies, and Slughorn is a worthy addition, as played by Jim Broadbent as a weak-willed wizard with a dark secret in his past. He’s almost a tragic figure, as Broadbent gives us a hint at the pethetic man who lies beneath all the bluster, surrounding himself with important people in order to seem important himself, and willing to boast of the most horrible magic in order to seem more learned and sophisticated. Of course, Slughorn is connected to the most important plot point of the film in question, and it actually develops quite organically.

On the other hand, there is a thread that sprouts from this which doesn’t really work as well as perhaps it should. While Dumbledore is fascinated by a mysterious incident from Slughorn’s past, he also reveals little bits and pieces about Tom Riddle to Harry. For those unaware, Riddle is the boy who would grow up to be Lord Voldemort. So we get a scene of Dumbledore collecting Tom from the orphanage where he grew up, and one or two other brief moments scattered throughout the film. However, none of them really give us a sense of who Tom Riddle was, beyond being a bad apple. He’s revealed as a thief and a racist, but this hardly seems like news, and it seems like the flashbacks are driven by plot rather than character (in which case the initial flashback to Dumbledore collecting Tom seems pointless). It’s a part of the movie that probably shouldwork, but doesn’t really come together as well it should.

A Riddle of a boy...

On the other hand, the film does really well to minimise Voldemort’s actual involvement in the plot. It seems like his hand is moving all the more skilfully that we can see the pawns moving across the board without a trace of the man. After all, we all know that any confrontation between Voldemort and Harry before the final film must end in stalemate, so it’s pointless to pit the two against each other – the results will just be anti-climactic. I think that this was part of the problem with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fact that it removed a lot of the mystery around the character, and I’m glad to see some of it restored, with the Dark Lord feeling more ethereal this time around.

I do quite like the subplot following Malfoy and his mission, as given by the Dark Lord himself. It’s really the character’s time to shine and, in fairness to Tom Felton, he does give it his all. There’s a genuine feeling of progression and development to Malfoy’s character arc as presented here, and it makes sense – it finally seems like the character is on an arc juxtaposed against his rival. Malfoy almost seems genuinely tragic here, trapped between his family and his conscience – something that Harry himself has never had to worry about, since his own conscience was always in line with those around him (to a greater or lesser degree).

The last stand?

On the other hand, there’s also copious amounts of teen soap opera drama heaped on top, as our leads fall in and out of and back in love again over the course of the movie. I thought we dealt with the Ron and Hermoine thing as far back as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? It just eats into screentime here, on a rather bland and redundant point. Regardless of whatever happened in the series, nobody ever doubted those two characters were getting together. While the movie is smart enough to point out how incredibly boring and late all this is (“about time, don’t you think?”), that isn’t enough to make it any less irritating. The movie runs long enough as it is, without all that nonsense compounding it all. If the fate of the world rests on these three kids, then they really need to stop acting like characters out some angsty teen melodrama.

It’s all the more infuriating because it relegates the title mystery to a bit of an after-thought. Sure, we occasionally get a glimpse of the book to remind us of its mysterious owner, but it’s never really pressed or hinted at. “Yes,” the character reveals himself at the movie’s climax, “I’m the half-blood Prince.” It seems more like a reminder to Harry to drop the book back rather than any sort of revelation or earth-shattering observation. Indeed, I don’t even think the reason for the nickname is revealed in the film (it was because the character’s human parent was called Prince). It doesn’t necessarily create too many plot holes, but it does hint that the character in question has been a bit shafted in the narrative and also creates a weird situation where the title of the book is the least important plot point.

Luck out, Harry!

Still, the movie does juggle its plot threads remarkably well, and it succeeds where its predecessor failed into tying them together into one compelling half-hour finalé. As the movie ends, plunging right into the series’ darkest hour, it really pulls together a lot of separate threads. It packs one hell of a punch, which helps give the rest of the movie a bit more weight than it would have had otherwise. A good ending can make a good movie great and – while perhaps this falls the smallest bit short – the movie has one heck of an intense ending.

Along the way, we get various key bits of Rowling’s philosophy thrown in as well, with a lot emphasis on the importance and the unique nature of “love.” None of this is as heavy-handed as Harry’s rebuke to Voldemort at the end of the previous movie, but indeed continues to suggest that Rowling views “love” as a sort of pure magic that trumps everything. While Slughorn can create a “love potion”, he stresses that it “cannot create real love. That would be impossible.” Harry’s mother protected her son because “her love was more powerful than Voldemort.”It’s a nice idea, and something that adds a layer of humanism to the whole franchise. It’s a wonderfully uplifting philosophy on which to underpin a series, and I think that’s why the series has held on to so many fans despite plunging so deep into the cold waters of darkness and despair.

Time for the wizards to step up their game...

Similarly, there’s that recurring hint about the strength and power of words, as Slughorn is afraid to utter Voldemort’s name in public or private, and feels terrified when others mention it. That’s the power of a name, of a word pushed past a person’s lips. “I’m not afraid of the name, Professor,” Harry assures him, and Rowling seeks to remind us that words can only scare us as long as we allow them to. It’s in our power to reclaim and to shape them, and to remove their power to wound and scar. Again, it’s a theme that has been there throughout, and it’s nice to see developing as we reach the end.

“You need a shave, my friend,” Dumbledore remarks to Harry as they embark on an adventure towards the end of the film. It’s a telling remark. It demonstrates how far Harry has come since we all began this journey – both in terms of literal growth (shaving) and personal growth (treated by Dumbledore as an equal). After all this time, we’re almost there. It’s almost over. And Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince effectively sets it all up.

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4 Responses

  1. I actually rather liked how the film handled the teen drama bits (though I wish they’d picked a better Ginny!), but I wonder if that appreciation stems largely from the fact that I really care about these kids after watching them on the screen since 2001. And truth be told it’s not half as melodramatic as it could have been, even if it does take up screen time (a point which I agree with you on very much).

    I also agree on Felton’s excellence here. I see him as Half-Blood Prince‘s secret weapon, and his subplot is handled with aplomb. Loved his work here.

    I think this is one of the stronger entries in the franchise, and I would concur that Yates definitely finds his legs here (though I think Order is a fine first attempt given how much he needed to parse the material down). If nothing else it’s a solid lead-in to Hallows, which is probably all that it needed to be.

    • Yep. The teen stuff just grates because it reduces the Half-Blood Prince to an afterthought, when it could have helped smooth some of the awkward expository flashbacks later on.

      And Felton’s great. A fine mix of pitiable and hatable, which is tough for any actor and a credit to one so young.

  2. I think the movie harry potter movie series is the most popular.
    I was one of the most liked this movie.
    unfortunately the film has ended.
    JK Rowling hopefully be continued
    thanks for your posting, guys

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