Sunday, July 19, 2009

Hope and Horcruxes (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)



(In the unlikely event of unfamiliarity with the subject matter, here there be spoilers....)

The trajectory of the six Harry Potter films to date (with two more, adapted from the final book, to go) has unwittingly mirrored the erratic essence of adolescence. Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets, both directed by Chris Columbus, were cutesy-poo hackwork; the highly regarded Prisoner of Azkaban, by the auteur Alfonso Cuaron, showed a refreshing understanding of how to operate a camera and transformed its flailing child actors into markedly improved performers but also featured questionable touches like talking shrunken Jamaican heads and a cheesy closing freeze-frame and nudgy Y Tu Mama Tambien-ish puns about Harry's "wand"; Mike Newell's Goblet of Fire was a ham-fisted exercise in grim brutality; but the relatively sleek and nimble Order of the Phoenix, directed by David Yates, turned the longest of the books into the shortest of the movies, and despite its flaws was the first of the series to successfully fuse J.K. Rowling's vision with a director's personal sensibility.

Yates is back for the newest installment, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and this time he comes pretty damn close to greatness. The brief opening teaser, a shot of a bloodied Harry standing alongside Dumbledore before an ensemble of photographers with cracking flashbulbs, brilliantly stands outside of the story while simultaneously encapsulating it. Harry's unwanted celebrity, the price he has paid for it, and his need for a mentor's guidance to accept his destiny and find a life in spite of dire odds are the primary touchstones of Rowling's saga; and The Half-Blood Prince offers a more reflective, less anger-prone hero than last time around. Even with the death of his godfather Sirius Black, he's less isolated than before, back under Dumbledore's direct tutelage and in the company of friends Ron and Hermione. By now Daniel Radcliffe, Emily Watson and (less impressively) Rupert Grint have the intuitive understanding of each other and their roles to pull off their interactions with ease. One of the biggest laughs in the movie comes when Harry half-jokingly, half-seriously boasts that he's "the Chosen One," and Hermione playfully whacks him over the head with a book. It's a casually tossed off piece of slapstick (and Radcliffe's giddy grin upon getting smacked is contagious), yet the subtext contains deep truths: Harry has finally accepted who he is, but is fortunate enough to have friends to help manage his ego and bring him back down to earth.

Each post-Columbus Potter movie has deepened a couple of characters beyond what they were to us before. This time, it's one-note kiddie villain Draco Malfoy on whom Yates wields the best results (and the actor portraying him, Tom Felton, suddenly seems more than his generation's William Zabka). Yates frames him as sort of a blonde Anton Chigurh, with minimal dialogue, lingering alone in the shadows, only not bereft of conscience. Malfoy does some terrible things in Half-Blood Prince, and the question of his ability to carry out the worst of his objectives plays out superbly.   

Also making a more vivid impression is Bonnie Wright as the self-possessed Ginny Weasley, Ron's younger sister and Harry's new love interest. The pair share a gorgeous scene in a room filled with dust-collecting magical antiques -- lovingly interpreted by Stephanie Zacharek that "Romantic love, as an idea, may technically be very old, but it's the young who keep it new by continually breathing life into it." On the more ancient side of things, Michael Gambon, in his fourth go-round as Dumbledore, replacing the late Richard Harris, has always conveyed the character's eccentricities while lacking a certain stature. (Harris achieved the opposite effect.) I'm not sure Gambon carries more weight here, yet there's a tighter focus to his performance, a connection with Radcliffe's Harry that had hitherto been deficient. I've also never much cared for Jim Broadbent, the latest Mike Leigh alum to appear in the series; but he capably fills the crucial guest-starring role of Horace Slughorn, professor of Potions and former mentor of Tom Riddle/Voldemort, with a lack of fuss. (Cuaron might not have been able to resist adding sexual subtext to Slughorn's "collecting" of student proteges, but Yates blessedly abstains.)

Few adaptations are perfect, and Half-Blood Prince has a handful of passages that dawdle too long or falter in tone: one pivotal scene, where Harry nearly kills another character, is rather cavalierly dismissed. Yet Steve Kloves's screenplay follows the horcrux-oriented plot (horcruxes being items in which Voldemort hid shards of his soul and are the key to destroying him) while seeming less dot-connective, more concentrated on character and theme than his previous efforts. And through it all David Yates directs with authority and grace. Sort of a more disciplined John Boorman, Yates lacks the unabashed looniness of Boorman (or George Miller or Terry Gilliam) to truly break the mold in a way that would likely estrange legions of fans; his practicality is probably why he was invited to return for not only this film but also the the final two movies to be adapted from Rowling's epic conclusion, The Deathly Hallows. Yet Yates is an often wizardly director, with a knack for ingenious verbal echoes and recurring visual motifs: an early image of a pair of villains clenched together is mirrored later with a pair of protagonists tenderly holding hands. Half-Blood Prince is as thought-out visually as was Order of the Phoenix, only with more connective emotional tissue holding it together. At the climax, as darkness threatens to fall, comes a simple display of hope and defiance (with Nicholas Hooper's remarkably attuned score reaching new heights), an image so beautiful it choked me up. So many filmmakers come across with compromised visions -- have split their souls into multiples -- that to create a blockbuster as cohesively heartfelt as this one takes more than Liquid Luck. It takes true vision, and the company of gifted peers who are less followers than believers.

6 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

This is a nice review. Alas, I was disappointed by Half-Blood Prince, mostly because the previous film made me care about the series in a way I hadn't yet, and I hoped this film would capitalize on that. Instead, my interest took a step back.

Don't get me wrong: I didn't hate this film. It's pleasant enough, as all of them have been. And I find the older characters more interesting, and I like watching them navigating life, not just magic class. But, to borrow a word from your review, I felt this whole film was kind of dawdling. It felt like stuffing, another thing in the way of the inevitable Voldemort clash.

Of course, (spoiler alert) this film does have Dumbledor's death. That's significant. But previous to that, the larger Voldemort story seemed to be dragging its heels. I just never got the sense those flashback scenes related to Tom Riddle were all that important, and, if I'm understanding correctly, they might not have been. It's Harry, I guess, who concludes that everything they were doing was kind of a waste of time. Somehow I sensed that.

Still, there are some great moments. I'm hoping to put together some thoughts for a notebook post, if not a full review, in the next few days.

Craig said...

I just never got the sense those flashback scenes related to Tom Riddle were all that important, and, if I'm understanding correctly, they might not have been. It's Harry, I guess, who concludes that everything they were doing was kind of a waste of time. Somehow I sensed that.

Getting Harry to despair and give up has always been the bad guys' agenda -- their strongest weapon. I hope it's not giving too much away if I suggest that everything is significant, especially those things that seem not to be.

Hokahey said...

This is wonderfully written and very convincing.

My problem is that I'm just not that interested in Harry Potter's world. I'm not fascinated by it. It seems kind of like Rowling is making it up as she goes along - horcruxes and lucky potions - they seem like such contrivances. I read the first book and was not taken. I've read large portions of Books 2-4 aloud to my son, and I see the movies with my daughter who loves them.

But, again, I'm convinced by your review that it IS a well-made movie.

Craig said...

Hokahey --

My problem is that I'm just not that interested in Harry Potter's world. I'm not fascinated by it. It seems kind of like Rowling is making it up as she goes along - horcruxes and lucky potions - they seem like such contrivances.

Fair enough. I don't find the magic all that compelling either. I wouldn't say Rowling is making it up as she goes; her elaborate narratives are fairly well thought out as far as that goes. (And the horcruxes get more interesting in the final chapter.) But most of the magical devices are, at best, second-rate Tolkien, et al.

The fun part is Rowling seems to know this. One of her best assets is her sense of humor, which channels unerringly into what kids think are funny. The best magic in her books is the kind that's cheekily tossed-off. And the greatest quality of the series lies in her unforgettable characterizations. Like you, I'm not interested in her world per se; but I am interested in how her characters relate to that world.

David Yates seems interested in this too. Another moment I love in Half-Blood Prince is when the camera follows Ron and his dippy girlfriend up one of Hogwarts's turrets, then does a neat pivot off that turret to reveal Malfoy standing alone at the tower's edge. (Where Dumbledore will later perish.) Yates has a great eye and knows all the moves, but they're never strictly showoffy. This one is meant to underline how Harry and his friends are strengthened by interacting with the world; whereas Malfoy, though a villain, is isolated by his loneliness. When this series finally concludes, I think this outing will look better in how it connects with everything that came before and after.

Alexander Villalba said...

“At the climax, as darkness threatens to fall, comes a simple display of hope and defiance (with Nicholas Hooper's remarkably attuned score reaching new heights), an image so beautiful it choked me up.”

Well, I thought Dumbledore’s death – when the school circles around him – was a poor melodramatic choice. The finale called for the type of emotional liberation that we saw with GOBLET OF FIRE, instead of the standing around, half-tear, symbolic imagery of the wands going up. Even if Yates should be applauded for the restraint and smart choices on how he establishes atmospheres and emotions through simplicity, those last symbolic images almost made it seem as if Dumbledore’s death wasn’t all that impactful – or at least, as it should have been. The melodramatic choice by Newell, on the other hand, seemed more cathartic to the experience because it seemed like a volcano had erupted in Harry’s world. That Cedric’s death seemed more powerful for the characters than Dumbledore’s is something of a pity. But, there you go.

“Another moment I love in Half-Blood Prince is when the camera follows Ron and his dippy girlfriend up one of Hogwarts's turrets, then does a neat pivot off that turret to reveal Malfoy standing alone at the tower's edge. (Where Dumbledore will later perish.) Yates has a great eye and knows all the moves, but they're never strictly showoffy. This one is meant to underline how Harry and his friends are strengthened by interacting with the world; whereas Malfoy, though a villain, is isolated by his loneliness.”

Absolutely; one of my favorite images as well. The visual language from Yates is what elevates the franchise into something to be admired cinematically right now, which you punctuated perfectly in this post. His minimalism reminded me of Alsonso CuarĂ³n’s in the third film, flowing through the story with simple images that contain complexities others would need dialogue and multiple scenes for. The use of the world of Harry as not just a backdrop, but as motifs that can establish moods and emotions is rather surprising for these kinds of franchises: walls turn into divisions of worlds; colors help establish a sense of magic and wonder; simple artifacts become as playful and magical as dragons and spells.

For the first half of this film, I was asking myself whether this was finally the “great film” of this franchise. And while the introduction of the horocrux plot in the second half and the lack of closure to it left a rather bad taste (as well as the complaint above, of course), I was for the most part perfectly happy with the present plots, and could have done simply with a narrative focused on Voldemort’s memories and Malfoy’s shenanigans. And Ralph Fiennes included just for pleasure. But I’m ranting a little bit there.

I wonder, then, whether the last film will be the great one. If Yates continues his bravura direction with this same magic and darkness of Potter’s world, all he needs is that cathartic, emotionally satisfying finale.

After all, redundancy and a lack of culmination have been two of the biggest problems as of late. You can only keep hinting and talking about the finale for so long.

Craig said...

Many thanks, Alexander. After all the smug self-congratulatory crap I've been reading lately (invariably beginning with, "I haven't read the book, but I KNOW it's stupid!..."), it's nice to see some genuinely thoughtful criticism as well as credit where credit is due.

Your reactions to the conclusions of those two films are very interesting. I think Cedric's death is supposed to be more cataclysmic, oddly enough, because it's the death of a child, and the first death (if memory serves right) that Harry witnessed. Dumbledore, while of course much closer to Harry, is the death of an old man who has lived a full life, and comes at a time when Harry is older and can deal with it better. That's why the final display of respect, in its simplicity, was touching to me.

I'm curious, too, to see what Yates can do with Deathly Hallows, especially with it divided into two movies, and if the next one will feel slightly anticlimactic as well. I agree that this one wasn't quite a great film. But as you indicated, there's still a great deal of beauty in it, much more than the knee-jerk dismissive are able to acknowledge.