Skip to main content

Has it ever crossed your brilliant mind that I don't want to do this anymore?

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
(2009)

(SPOILERS) I get the impression this sixth instalment might not be the most obviously crowd pleasing in the Potter-sphere – among fans, rather than critics – but my second visit only reconfirms it as right up there in the top tier. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is certainly atypical, eschewing action for the most part (there are a couple of quidditch interludes, but they’re almost apologetic) and showing a keen aptitude for something the series has previous shown inconsistency towards: intrigue. For much of the running time, this is more like a spy movie – of the Le Carré, rather than Fleming variety – as characters surreptitiously keep close tabs on other characters, trying to puzzle out who is doing what to whom and when. And then, on top of that, it does a remarkably proficient job of developing the increasingly hormonal youngsters’ affairs of the heart.


The latter element initially looks as if it may end up treading water, as much as the similarly positioned romantic tuggings in Goblet of Fire did, particularly as Ron finally gets his extended, devoted subplot focussing on unwanted admirer Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) and his feelings of insecurity as a Quidditch goalie. 


I’ve said before I find it difficult to swallow Hermione’s interest in Ron, particularly when it isn’t played for “But why should she be interested in me?”, and that hasn’t gone away here, but these sequences bring out the best in Grint, whose delivery is as innately humorous as ever. And, while Rowling’s use of the old placebo trick may not have anyone in the audience fooled, it’s a nicely placed lesson nevertheless.


Even more so, and perhaps more surprisingly so, is Harry’s own romantic longing, first identified when he’s asked out at London café by Elarica Johnson (a date never to be met) and then when he finds himself pining for Ron’s sister Ginny, who had previously made her interest known as far back as Chamber of Secrets. What sells this isn’t Radcliffe, though; it’s Bonnie Wright’s nuanced, subtle performance, one that seems entirely of a piece with the more mature, subdued approach returning director David Yates brings to the adaptation (Steve Kloves is back as screenwriter after his one sickie from the series).


That said, Radcliffe, who continues to be as generally stiff as we’re now used to and have come to terms with, reveals a hitherto unexplored trick to his limited arsenal; he’s remarkably good at playing stupid/gormless/off his gourd (see also Swiss Army Man). It may be a Channing Tatum thing, where an actor’s wooden unless you cast them just right, usually as someone oblivious or vacant. The entire sequence revolving around his consumption of liquid luck succeeds every bit as much due to Radcliffe’s woozy, out-of-it act as the increasingly intoxicated performances of Robbie Coltrane and Jim Broadbent (booze plays a recurring part of the movie, so one presumes Rowling intended it to reflect a rite-of-passage for this particular age group). He also musters a genuine laugh with his cheeky “I am the chosen one” in response to Hermione telling him a girl is only interested in him due to his foretold status.


Additionally, Harry has a more interesting role than usual in Half-Blood Prince. Rather than being constantly hearkened to as important (except in respect of Romilda Vane’s attentions), he’s employed as a spy, on a mission from Dumbledore to discover new Potions master Professor Slughorn’s (Broadbent) secret knowledge of Tom Riddle. Harry Potter here shows its potential for shifting subgenres within its own genre, deftly adopting the slow burn of a political thriller (“Did I know that I just met the most dangerous dark wizard of all time?”), with flashbacks, muddled accounts and incomplete snippets of information (“This memory is everything. Without it we are blind”). That Harry is fairly useless at being an undercover agent is part of the appeal of the take.


And, unlike earlier instalments, Kloves continually juggles the elements of intrigue without dropping them or having to push them into sharp retreat. One of the most satisfying is the Half-Blood Prince’s book of spells. It’s in the title, so we know it’s essential, and particularly so as Harry’s using it throughout to get ahead in class, but it steadfastly refuses to become the most important element until we realise it is at the climax, when we learn it was Snape’s book, and his alter-identity.


“Revealing” Snape, now Professor of Defence Against the Dark Arts, so his end in one way or another cannot be far off, as the bad guy, the character on whom suspicion has fallen since the very first film due to his undisguised disdain for Harry (based on how it reflects on his own personal history), is convincing enough without ever being convincing (because Dumbledore would have to be wrong, and because all the obvious hints that this is a ruse between two conspiring participants would be void).


More, as I see others have drawn observed, Snape’s role now offers a crisp analogy for the gnostic Judas (notably in The Gospel of Judas), I suspect intentionally on Rowling’s part, whereby the thirteenth disciple followed a course pre-determined and agreed with Jesus that he should betray his Master in order that the latter fulfil his role on Earth and become the saviour of mankind. Rickman, of course, is iconic in the role, and I particularly liked the manner in which Snape casts spells like a priest engaged in an exorcism or performing some other holy rite.


This is also easily the most interesting Dumbledore movie (unless Jude Law proves otherwise), finally giving Michael Gambon a chance to justify the necessary recasting of Harris, because he’s allowed to cast off the benevolent mentor and get his teeth into some actual acting, be it the scenes at the cave where he must drink the potion concealing the Horcrux (a sequence that evokes the tribulations of Greek labours while filled with unsettling imagery, from zombie-esque Inferi to Harry – unlike later – bowing to his elder’s instruction and making him drink up that liquid badness).


Yates has made a subtler, more lyrical Harry Potter than we have seen before; as much as Aflonso Cuarón’s picture is artistically superior, it lacks this one’s overall resonance, of loss and fateful, world-changing events both large and small (mostly on a more immediate, personal level). Much as I disapprove of the colour-drained palate Yates seems to prefer, it admittedly suits the generally downbeat, sombre tone, as if pre-rehearsing Tinker Tailor Magician Spy. There are some lovely transitions, from pages to snowscapes, and swirling images breaking out from the pensieve as we return to present reality. Or just plain memorable ones, such as the incongruous meeting of magicians in a bedsit, and the chase through a cornfield at the Weasleys’.


Not everything works. After making a strong impression in the previous entry, Luna is now clearly just space cadet comic relief. Draco meanwhile, despite being nominally shown not to have it in him to be truly evil – but we knew he was just plain bad at bullying anyway, right? It has been hammered home in the most cartoonish fashion in every preceding movie – is again a disappointment, the series biggest missed opportunity. There could have been an attempt to sketch in a layered character, but the few suggestions now are too little too late (we come away thinking he’s not only hissable but entirely useless too). But mainly, this is a highly commendable success. I’ve had to rethink my previous assertion of obviously the best Potter (Prisoner of Azkaban). I think it might instead be the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It’s just a shame the two-part ultimate chapter wouldn’t even come close to equalling it.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .