Wednesday, July 15, 2009
After running through my marathon viewing of the previous five installments of the Harry Potter franchise in the last two days, I've come to a simple realization: as a whole, the series is frustratingly average. For a series set in a magical alternate world tucked away from our weary doldrums, it never conveys any sense of the wonder of J.K. Rowling's mad creation. Even as the series grew darker with each sequel, half the fun of reading them was exploring new places and oddball characters, which gave them an unassailable joyousness no matter how bleak the outcome looked for our heroes.
Not that Harry is feeling particularly cheery at the start of Half-Blood Prince. Now exonerated in the court of public opinion following proof of Voldemort's return, Harry must endure press junkets mere minutes after watching his godfather Sirius die. This devastating moment rarely has any impact on the story at all, however, perhaps because the last film failed to wring much emotion out of it. Dumbledore whisks him away, and soon he plucks Harry from his summer break begin the hunt for their nemesis.
Michael Gambon has been a treat ever since he took over for the late, great Richard Harris in the third film, but he brings his A-game this time, mixing regret, quiet strength and subtle humor effortlessly. He holds the entire film together as he takes Harry on strolls through a magical Memory Lane to trace Voldemort's history.
The first act of the film is perhaps the best stretch of the film series: it captures the darkness of the novel, and Yates' direction is sturdy and evocative. Harry's trips with Dumbledore and the Pensieve scene involving a young Tom Riddle (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, nephew of Ralph Fiennes, Voldemort himself) are deeply and wonderfully unsettling, and I caught myself tensing up at times. A note, though: when Death Eaters fly through London and destroy a crowded Muggle bridge, the effect is somewhat spoiled when the camera zooms out from people frantically running to see the bridge twisting...without a soul standing on it. That's pretty basic animation, guys.
Then we start following our beloved trio through the school year, and Half-Blood Prince loses its way. Yates and writer Steve Kloves suddenly drop the dark air of the first act in favor of a protracted inspection of the romantic woes of all three. Ron and Hermione's attempts to woo the other only drive them further apart, while Harry apparently has to queue up for a crack at Ron's little sis Ginny (Bonnie Wright). These slightly comical interactions throw off the pacing and greatly distract from the mission at hand. I've read a number of reviews claiming that this movie works because it shows the characters maturing like normal teenagers despite the predicament surrounding them, but Kloves only explores this aging through unfunny comic relief.
There is one moment, when Hermione sits dejected as Ron snogs a clingy devotee and asks how Harry feels when he sees other boys with Ginny. As Ron walks past with his facesucking buddy in tow, Harry nearly whispers, "It feels like that." That one line is achingly beautiful, and more lines like that would have made the distraction from the Voldemort story because it genuinely would have fleshed these characters out. But no, that line is sadly just a fluke. Why Yates decided to stick with these subplots at the expense of the excellent Voldemort history lesson is beyond me.
Furthermore, the final battle in Hogwarts has been drastically altered and excised, and Yates took the emotional weight of the scene along with it. When the identity of the Half-Blood Prince is revealed, it's already been softened by a scene cut and pasted from the seventh book that openly hints at the true nature behind the final tragedy. And for all the planning the Death Eaters put into breaking into Hogwarts, they seem to stroll out as quickly as they enter, leaving only a single vandalized room in their wake. Imagine if Robert De Niro's character spent all of Heat planning, only to walk into the bank at the end and make a deposit.
On the positive side, the acting is up to the usual standards. Radcliffe may never be convincing as a reluctant, angsty leader (or even one of the three), and Watson still over-pronounces each line, but the others are great. Poor Rupert Grint has always made the best of a bad situation with the under-written Ron -- heck, when the fame-whore Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) never remembers his name, I felt he did so not because the Weasleys are ordinary wizards but because even I know nothing about him at this point of the film franchise -- but he gets some big laughs with his dopey grin and his constant bemusement. Both Fiennes-Tiffin and Frank Dillane (who plays the teen Riddle) are pitch-perfect in their roles, and Dillane in particular makes me wish far more of the film had been devoted to him working his icy charm on unsuspecting adults.
However, it's Tom Felton, the best of the child actors since the first film, who steals the show as the hardened yet tortured Draco. He's always had that haughty sneer down pat, but we see another side of him in this film, and he outperforms even the adults. If only Yates had stopped replaying the scene of him ripping the curtain off of a magic cabinet over and over and used that time to let Felton do something else, because I believed every choice Draco made in this movie, even more so than I did in he books.
All in all, Half-Blood Prince, like all of its predecessors save Prisoner of Azkaban, has excellent moments but fails to add up into a cohesive whole. Its omissions and alterations result in an enjoyable movie, but one that builds to a climax that never comes. As with "Order of the Phoenix," it takes an emotionally charged ending and mishandles it to the point of tedium. And for the love of God, will they give Alan Rickman something to do before this series ends?