Friday, July 17, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Grim tidings

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) • View trailer for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for fantasy violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.17.09
Buy DVD: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince• Buy Blu-Ray: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince [Blu-ray]

Steve Kloves is the best thing that ever happened to the Harry Potter film franchise.

The skilled screenwriter was sorely missed on 2007's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the only one of the six films that Kloves didn't script. It was, quite frequently, a narrative muddle that both failed to capture the essential plot elements of Rowling's sprawling novel, and completely perplexed viewers unfamiliar with Harry's universe.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, right) has no idea who previously owned the battered
old textbook that has made him such a whiz in potions class, and he really
doesn't care; Hermione (Emma Watson), on the other hand, is both suspicious
and worried. Ron (Rupert Grint), alas, is too absorbed by sports and an
aggressive new girlfriend to notice such things.

Thankfully, Kloves is back, and this new big-screen adventure  Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince  is much the better for his participation.

(The good news continues: Kloves already is working on the two-film adaptation of the series' final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, scheduled for release in 2010 and 2011.)

Despite the enormity of the task, Kloves carefully advances the key plot points involved with the deadly Lord Voldemort's efforts to penetrate the magic-protected walls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, while also devoting plenty of time to the hormones raging within our young protagonists. The characters, 11 when introduced, now are in their sixth year at Hogwarts, which makes them 17 ... and madly, desperately, hopelessly in love.

And not necessarily with the right people.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), his brief fling with Cho Chang now an uncomfortable memory, can appreciate the romantic agony of Hermione (Emma Watson), whose fondness for Ron (Rupert Grint) has grown during the previous two films, and now is blindingly obvious to everybody ... except Ron himself. Vexingly, he has encouraged the romantic overtures of sappy Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave, appropriately smothering).

For his part, Harry is brought up short by the degree to which Ron's younger sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright), has blossomed into a young woman whose former little-kid devotion has become a bit more serious.

Unfortunately, young love is the least of Harry's problems. Half-Blood Prince opens with a nasty prologue, as Voldemort's villainous "Death Eaters"  led by the giggling psychopath, Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter at her seductively sinister best)  boldly assault targets both in Harry's magical world (the shops of Diagon Alley) and in the more public "Muggle" realm of downtown London.

One might have thought, with Voldemort's clandestine bid for power so successfully exposed by Harry and Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) in the previous film, that the evil lord would have withdrawn. But no: His efforts, and the malevolent behavior of his followers, have grown ever more ferocious.

And he still wants Harry on a platter.

Fortunately, Harry and his friends make it safely inside the protective walls of Hogwarts, where magical defenses repel attempted assaults by the Death Eaters. For a time, then, our young heroes can be students whose greatest concerns are adapting to new classes and teachers, most notably Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), a veteran potions professor persuaded by Dumbledore to return to his former post at Hogwarts.

Harry, to his delight, finds that he has become quite adept at his lessons, thanks to hints written in the margins of a battered textbook once belonging to somebody known only as "the half-blood prince."

Ron is distracted by his new role as Quidditch goalkeeper: a position of sporting glamor that makes Lavender all tingly.

Thanks yet again to Dumbledore's great trust in his prize student, Harry is encouraged to get to know Professor Slughorn better ... much better. It turns out that Slughorn once taught the young boy  Tom Riddle, wonderfully creepy in several flashbacks, as played by Frank Dillane  who eventually grew into the man known as Lord Voldemort.

Dumbledore believes that Slughorn knows something about Voldemort  a potential weakness that the dark lord's younger self might have incautiously discussed with his potions professor  and Harry needs to uncover this information.


Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton)  his loathing for Harry now complete in the wake of his father's exposure as a Death Eater, and subsequent imprisonment in Azkaban  has been embraced by bad company. Worse yet, Draco has been guaranteed protection by Professor Snape (Alan Rickman, still suavely unctuous), whose apparent 'relationship' with Bellatrix is most disturbing.

Is Snape a deep-cover agent for Dumbledore, who trusts him without reservation? Or is Snape in fact one of Voldemort's pawns?

And, given the protective aura surrounding Hogwarts, what might Draco do, to grant clandestine access to Bellatrix and her minions?

It's telling  and certainly no surprise  that Monday evening's preview audience skewed much older than the primarily adolescent fans who waited breathlessly, many of them dressed in Gryffindor robes, back when 2001's Sorcerer's Stone debuted. The books' readers have grown older as the films have been released; more to the point, Rowling abandoned the largely innocent tone of her first few books for the far more serious events leading inexorably to the climactic confrontations of her final novel.

As became obvious in the previous film, bad things now are happening to good people ... and it's only getting worse. This ain't kid stuff any more.

Kloves and returning director David Yates therefore are to be credited for maintaining such a delicate balance between these two warring moods. Indeed, this increases the tension: If Harry and his friends are absorbed by classes and each other, how will they ever react in time, when Bellatrix and Draco make their moves?

Yates has a wonderful visual sense, and his camera manipulation  with a strong assist from cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel  is sensational. One early shot begins in a railway car of the Hogwarts Express, as Harry, Ron and Hermione reflect on recent events, and then the camera pulls out of their window to establish a long shot of the train, and then scoots into the window of another car: all in a smooth, unbroken pan.

This film is filled with such shots, and they superbly amplify character emotion and on-screen action.

Radcliffe has settled nicely into his by-now familiar role, and he delivers a good mix of youthful high spirits and sober reflection, the latter most visible when he discusses his dead parents with Professor Slughorn. Watson's Hermione is amusing when vexed by Harry's new success at potions, but she also persuasively handles her character's frustration with Ron.

Grint, alas, now serves as little beyond comic relief. Gone is the faithful wing man who so bravely helped Harry in the first film.

Wright comes into her own as Ginny, and Evanna Lynch once again establishes a strong presence as the unapologetic misfit, Luna Lovegood.

Felton's Draco gets considerable exposure in this film, as a deeply conflicted bully unwilling to admit that he may not have the stomach for what is to come. I doubt we'll ever feel sorry for Draco Malfoy, but that won't be for lack of effort on Felton's part.

Ironically, though, the maturity of Felton's performance results, in part, from the way real life can create problems in an ongoing film franchise with adolescent and teen characters. Rowling's books take place during successive terms at Hogwarts, but recent films have arrived at two-year intervals. All the young stars have matured  a lot  since their previous appearance, and it's distracting. Very distracting, in Felton's case; he now appears five years older than everybody else.

I also was saddened by the absence of everything this film had no time for: all the wonderful atmospheric details Rowling established in her books, which popped up in earlier films but now have been left behind. We see no moving stairways, or the castle's ghostly inhabitants, or the talking paintings demanding passwords, or the thestrals. Dobby the house elf is absent entirely; poor Natalia Tena gets ridiculously short shrift as pink-haired Nymphadora Tonks, as was the case in the previous film.

I guess we should be grateful for Robbie Coltrane's brief appearances as Hagrid, and the quick reference to Aragog's passing, and the fleeting  but highly enjoyable  visit to George and Fred Weasley's new joke shop in Diagon Alley.

Despite Kloves' care, we still get the (quite accurate) impression that this film is little more than a Readers Digest condensed version of Rowling's book; some significant events, such as the consequences of Bellatrix's assault on the Weasley home, are left completely unresolved.

That said, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince still makes sense, holds together and tells a comprehensible story in a way that wasn't true of the previous film. Yates and Kloves have neatly set the stage for the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, which  thanks to the greater depth afforded by turning one book into two films  should have the luxury of once again embracing all the little details that make Rowling's books so captivating.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince concludes as Harry, Ron and Hermione stand on a castle balcony and contemplate what is to come: a tableau that strikingly echoes the similar final scene in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

The calm before the storm.

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