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

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

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.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

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…

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…