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

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

I don’t think Wimpys still exist.

Last Night in Soho (2021) (SPOILERS) Last Night in Soho is a cautionary lesson in one’s reach extending one’s grasp. It isn’t that Edgar Wright shouldn’t attempt to stretch himself, it’s simply that he needs the self-awareness to realise which moves are going to throw his back out and leave him in a floundering and enfeebled heap on the studio floor. Wright’s an uber-geek, one with a very specific comfort zone, and there’s no shame in that. He evidently was shamed, though, hence this response to criticisms of a lack of maturity and – obviously – lack of versatility with female characters. Last Night in Soho goes broke for woke, and in so doing exposes his new clothes in the least flattering light. Because Edgar is in no way woke, his attempts to prove his progressive mettle lead to a lurid, muddled mess, one that will satisfy no one. Well, perhaps his most ardent fans, but no one else.

It looks like a digital walkout.

Free Guy (2021) (SPOILERS) Ostensibly a twenty-first century refresh of The Truman Show , in which an oblivious innocent realises his life is a lie, and that he is simply a puppet engineered for the entertainment of his creators/controllers/the masses, Free Guy lends itself to similar readings regarding the metaphysical underpinnings of our reality, of who sets the paradigm and how conscious we are of its limitations. But there’s an additional layer in there too, a more insidious one than using a Hollywood movie to “tell us how it really is”.

It becomes easier each time… until it kills you.

The X-Files 4.9: Terma Oh dear. After an engaging opener, the second part of this story drops through the floor, and even the usually spirited Rob Bowman can’t save the lethargic mess Carter and Spotnitz make of some actually pretty promising plot threads.

He's not a nightstalker, and it'll take a lot more than bench presses to defeat him.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) (SPOILERS) The most successful entry in the franchise, if you don’t count Freddy vs. Jason . And the point at which Freddy went full-on vaudeville, transformed into adored ringmaster rather than feared boogeyman. Not that he was ever very terrifying in the first place (the common misapprehension is that later instalments spoiled the character, but frankly, allowing Robert Englund to milk the laughs in bad-taste fashion is the saving grace of otherwise forgettably formulaic sequel construction). A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master boasts the most inventive, proficient effects work yet, but it’s also by far the least daring in terms of plotting, scraping together a means for Freddy to persist in his nocturnal pestilence while offering nothing in the way of the unexpected, be it characterisations or story points.

Give daddy the glove back, princess.

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) (SPOILERS) Looking at Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare , by some distance the least lauded (and laudable) of the original Elm Street sextet, you’d think it inconceivable that novice director and series old-hand – first as assistant production manager and finally as producer – Rachel Talalay has since become a respected and in-demand TV helmer. For the most part, Freddy’s Dead is shockingly badly put together. It reminded me of the approach the likes of Chris Carter and Sir Ken take, where someone has clearly been around productions, absorbing the basics of direction, but has zero acumen for turning that into a competent motion picture, be it composition, scene construction, editing or pacing. Talalay’s also responsible for the story idea here, which does offer a few nuggets, at least, but her more primary role actively defeats any positives.

Monster nom nom?

The Suicide Squad (2021) (SPOILERS) This is what you get from James Gunn when he hasn’t been fed through the Disney rainbow filter. Pure, unadulterated charmlessness, as if he’s been raiding his deleted Twitter account for inspiration. The Suicide Squad has none of the “heart” of Guardians of Galaxy , barely a trace of structure, and revels in the kind of gross out previously found in Slither ; granted an R rating, Gunn revels in this freedom with juvenile glee, but such carte blanche only occasionally pays off, and more commonly leads to a kind of playground repetition. He gets to taunt everyone, and then kill them. Critics applauded; general audiences resisted. They were right to.

Give poor, starving Gurgi munchings and crunchings.

The Black Cauldron (1985) (SPOILERS) Dark Disney? I guess… Kind of . I don’t think I ever got round to seeing this previously. The Fox and the Hound , sure. Basil the Great Mouse Detective , most certainly. Even Oliver and Company , so I wasn’t that selective. But I must have missed The Black Cauldron , the one that nearly broke Disney, for the same reason everyone else did. But what reason was that? Perhaps nothing leaping out about it, when the same summer kids could see The Goonies , or Back to the Future , or Pee Wee’s Big Adventure . It seemed like a soup of other, better-executed ideas and past Disney movies, stirred up in a cauldron and slopped out into an environment where audiences now wanted something a touch more sophisticated.

Oh hello, loves, what year is it?

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) (SPOILERS) Simu Lui must surely be the least charismatic lead in a major motion picture since… er, Taylor Lautner? He isn’t aggressively bad, like Lautner was/is, but he’s so blank, so nondescript, he makes Marvel’s super-spiffy new superhero Shang-Chi a superplank by osmosis. Just looking at him makes me sleepy, so it’s lucky Akwafina is wired enough for the both of them. At least, until she gets saddled with standard sidekick support heroics and any discernible personality promptly dissolves. And so, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings continues Kevin Feige’s bold journey into wokesense, seemingly at the expense of any interest in dramatically engaging the viewer.

The voice from the outer world who will lead them to paradise.

Dune (2021) (SPOILERS) For someone who has increasingly dug himself a science-fiction groove, Denis Villeneuve isn’t terribly imaginative. Dune looks perfect, in the manner of the cool, clinical, calculating and above all glacial rendering of concept design and novel cover art in the most doggedly literal fashion. And that’s the problem. David Lynch’s edition may have had its problems, but it was inimitably the product of a mind brimming with sensibility. Villeneuve’s version announces itself as so determinedly faithful to Frank Herbert, it needs two movies to tell one book, and yet all it really has to show for itself are gargantuan vistas.