Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Love: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

If you promise not to revoke my membership to the Boy Who Lived fanclub, I'll tell you a secret: I didn't much like the print version of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Book six, for me, was a tremendous letdown after the angst-driven character development of the 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 obvious narrative developments, yes, but the other 500-odd pages seemed of little consequence.  The sixth book was, out of all of them, the one that felt the least like a cherished work of children's literature, and the most like a brainless bestselling thriller.  I remember feeling the plot was built on a Dan Brown-esque (but better, of course) 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 display it in a gilded frame up on screen. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is nothing short of a stunningly gorgeous film.  It works as both companion piece and  compromise between the visual mastery of Alfonso Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban (easily the best in the series) and the humor/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 the most frustrating piece of the franchise into something comfortable in its skin enough to sit, meditative. This is a different sort of Harry Potter film.  The usual 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 supporting characters 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) not as precocious pre-teens, but as preternaturally wise teenagers. The film allows us to see how they've grown, to recall their humble beginnings and chart their maturing 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 not those of children, but instead the delicate and fragile experiences of innocence lost too early.

Yates and his director of photography have created an aesthetic that fully supports the underlying drama of the film. This is a visually stunning piece of work not so heavily reliant on whimsical digital 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 of this fractured snowglobe, no matter how joyous the occasion. There are times, in fact, when the film's influencing pieces seem to be based more in  The Assassination of Jesse James than a work of children's fiction.
Of course, it is not a perfect film.  Daniel Radcliffe,though he has essentially been Harry Potter for most of his youth, seems just a little bit uncomfortable in his role.  Call it post-Equus adapting, perhaps.  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.  It's certainly not enough to obliterate the film's reputation.
Where Radcliffe plays restrained, Emma Watson jumps at the 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 mellow, unwashed and slightly dazed 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 evil" 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; fey and twee with just the slightest hint of menace.  The fact remains that Harry Potter is a who's-who of British actors capabla, even in their weakest moments, of beating any and all Twilight films to a pulp.  Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is a sure thing; a success that improves upon the source material and sparkles while doing so.  It slips easily into place as the second best film adaptation thus far.

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