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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

If a rat were to walk in here right now as I'm talking, would you treat it to a saucer of your delicious milk?

Inglourious Basterds (2009)
(SPOILERS) His staunchest fans would doubtless claim Tarantino has never taken a wrong step, but for me, his post-Pulp Fiction output had been either not quite as satisfying (Jackie Brown), empty spectacle (the Kill Bills) or wretched (Death Proof). It wasn’t until Inglourious Basterds that he recovered his mojo, revelling in an alternate World War II where Adolf didn’t just lose but also got machine gunned to death in a movie theatre showing a warmly received Goebbels-produced propaganda film. It may not be his masterpiece – as Aldo Raines refers to the swastika engraved on “Jew hunter” Hans Landa’s forehead, and as Tarantino actually saw the potential of his script – but it’s brimming with ideas and energy.

Check it out. I wonder if BJ brought the Bear with him.

Death Proof (2007)
(SPOILERS) In a way, I’m slightly surprised Tarantino didn’t take the opportunity to disown Death Proof, to claim that, as part of Grindhouse, it was no more one of his ten-official-films-and-out than his Four Rooms segment. But that would be to spurn the exploitation genre affectation that has informed everything he’s put his name to since Kill Bill, to a greater or less extent, and also require him to admit that he was wrong, and you won’t find him doing that for anything bar My Best Friend’s Birthday.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

Hey, everybody. The bellboy's here.

Four Rooms (1995)
(SPOILERS) I had an idea that I’d only seen part of Four Rooms previously, and having now definitively watched the entire thing, I can see where that notion sprang from. It’s a picture that actively encourages you to think it never existed. Much of it isn’t even actively terrible – although, at the same time, it couldn’t be labelled remotely good– but it’s so utterly lethargic, so lacking in the energy, enthusiasm and inventiveness that characterises these filmmakers at their best – and yes, I’m including Rodriguez, although it’s a very limited corner for him – that it’s very easy to banish the entire misbegotten enterprise from your mind.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
(SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump. And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

That woman, deserves her revenge and… we deserve to die. But then again, so does she.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2  (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’m not sure I can really conclude whether one Kill Bill is better than the other, since I’m essentially with Quentin in his assertion that they’re one film, just cut into two for the purposes of a selling point. I do think Kill Bill: Vol. 2 has the movie’s one actually interesting character, though, and I’m not talking David Carradine’s title role.

The adversary oft comes in the shape of a he-goat.

The Witch (2015)
(SPOILERS) I’m not the biggest of horror buffs, so Stephen King commenting that The Witchscared the hell out of me” might have given me pause for what was in store. Fortunately, he’s the same author extraordinaire who referred to Crimson Peak as “just fucking terrifying” (it isn’t). That, and that general reactions to Robert Eggers’ film have fluctuated across the scale, from the King-type response on one end of the spectrum to accounts of unrelieved boredom on the other. The latter response may also contextualise the former, depending on just what King is referring to, because what’s scary about The Witch isn’t, for the most part, scary in the classically understood horror sense. It’s scary in the way The Wicker Man is scary, existentially gnawing away at one through judicious martialling of atmosphere, setting and theme.


Indeed, this is far more impressive a work than Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, which had hitherto been compared to The Wicker Man, succeeding admirably …