“Right about now I assume you’re wondering why I’ve brought you here,” Albus Dumbledore says to Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
“Actually, sir,” Harry replies, “after all these years, I just sort of go with it.”
Well, after all these years, you either do or you don’t, and The Half-Blood Prince is unlikely to change any minds in that respect. Potter fans, whether or not they’ve kept up with the books, will find that the latest film continues the trajectories of recent installments — it’s darker, more tragic and more romantic — while setting the stage for the final battle, now planned for two movies.
There’s less magical eye candy this time around: no new mythical creatures and such to gawk at, unless you count an army of creepy submarine zombie things. (Well, and a dead giant spider.) The movie’s best visuals involve excursions into Dumbledore’s Pensieve, a laver akin to Galadriel’s liquid mirror, into which fluid memories can be poured like drops of food coloring into a fishbowl, where they writhe like smoke and coalesce into dreamlike images. (There’s also a neat throwaway scene in which a trashed house is put to rights.)
Director David Yates, whose Order of the Phoenix made the shortest film out of the longest book, is back, working for the first time with returning screenwriter Steve Kloves, who worked on every film but the last one. The book version of The Half-Blood Prince is the first in the series to reverse the trend toward ever-longer page counts — it’s only the third longest of the first six books — and the movie version, possibly coincidentally, is the third longest of the six completed films.
As a result, for perhaps the first time since Alfonso Cuarón’s The Prisoner of Azkaban, the third film in the series and one of the most popular, the characters don’t get short shrift. In The Goblet of Fire, the fourth film and possibly the best adapted of the series to date, the characters suffered; Ron was a whiner and Hermione a shrill scold. They got better in The Order of the Phoenix, which also gave Harry his best hero moments to date — but only now, in moments of calm before the storm, do Harry and his friends have room to breathe, to be themselves.
The romantic stirrings that felt rushed and perfunctory in the last two films (Ron’s lame attempt to ask Hermione to the Yule Ball, Harry’s irrelevant first kiss with Cho Chang) take center stage. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) finally notices a girl who noticed him right from the start — his best friend Ron’s kid sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) — but at the moment she’s carrying on with another admirer, much to Harry’s — and Ron’s — chagrin. Ron (Rupert Grint), with his exploits on the Quidditch field, attracts an enthusiastically amorous groupie, to the amusement of everyone except Hermione (Emma Watson).
I haven’t kept up with the books, but the Harry–Ginny thing makes sense to me: the young girl’s crush on her older brother’s best friend (in this case his famous and talented friend) to whom she, the best friend’s kid sister, is invisible, until suddenly one day she isn’t.
On the other hand, I don’t really buy the Hermione–Ron thing, at least as it plays out in the movies. Whatever Ron may be in the books, in the movies he’s mostly been comic relief at best, whiny annoyance at worst. The Half-Blood Prince at least gives him a chance to be funny again, but doesn’t let him show the sort of substance and strength of character that someone of Hermione’s standards would require in a beau.
On the flip side, Hermione is now a stunning young woman; that a boy like Ron in her inner circle of friends would seemingly be so slow to “think of her that way” just about defies belief. I could see Ron taking for granted that he would never have a chance with her, but I can’t see him being oblivious to the question. Heck, I’m not sure I buy Harry not taking a pass at Hermione (or at least thinking about it) while their respective romantic interests are both snogging others, with her vulnerable and them both available. I mean, yeah, he likes Ginny, but still.
Oh right, the war of good and evil. Well, it’s looking pretty bad. The story opens with Voldemort’s Death Eaters running amok, wreaking havoc in the Muggle world as well as the magical world, though they can’t get past the defenses that protect Hogwart’s. Because Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) means to keep it that way, the school now has security checks at the entrances where students are searched on arrival. Outside Hogwart’s, all bets are off — as Harry discovers when he spends Christmas holiday with the Weasleys and the house is attacked by Death Eaters.
Why does Harry rush out of the Weasleys’ house and into the surrounding wetlands to battle at least three powerful servants of Voldemort in a grassy marsh at night? Is he trying to draw fire from the Weasleys? If so, it doesn’t work, since first Ginny and then the others follow him. Wouldn’t it be better to stay at the house? A wizard house must offer some defense against hostile forces — as the defenses around Hogwart’s suggests. Better than nothing, anyway.
Even Hogwart’s defenses may not be enough, though. After mostly sitting out the last couple of films, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), whose father Lucius was exposed as a Death Eater and committed to Azkaban in the last film, is back with a vengeance. Draco’s jaw and shoulders have grown manly, making the still-boyish Harry look a couple of years behind, and he clearly has more on his mind than petty classmate rivalries.
Is Draco in league with the Death Eaters? Is Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), who seems always to be on hand whenever Draco is under fire, a traitor protecting a traitor? Dumbledore insists that he trusts Snape, though Harry points out that Dumbledore can make mistakes and has admitted as much.
Trust, in fact, turns out to be a key theme of The Half-Blood Prince. Mysteriously aloof for most of the last film, Dumbledore now openly relies on and confides in Harry — gratifyingly so, since Harry’s other adult mentor, his godfather Sirius Black, is dead, and there are intimations that even Dumbledore may not be be around forever. Dumbledore cagily uses Harry to lure a former professor, potions master Horace Slughorn (newcomer Jim Broadbent, delightful), back to Hogwarts, and urges Harry to win Slughorn’s trust in order to learn a secret Slughorn harbors regarding Voldemort’s schoolboy days as Tom Riddle.
Thanks to Slughorn’s class, Harry gets serious about studies for the first time pretty much ever, though once again he gets a free pass and takes the easy way. Harry inherits a used textbook extensively marked up, with brilliant corrections and invaluable additions, by a former student who went by the nom de plume “The Half-Blood Prince.”
With the help of the HBP cheat sheets, Harry quickly goes to the head of the class, and in a violent confrontation the book provides Harry with a startling edge. Here the movie skips a couple of links in the chain of thought that leads Harry’s friends — not Harry; he reverts to passivity here — to conclude that the book is too powerful, or evil, or something, and needs to be hidden away forever.
Harry takes a more active role elsewhere, notably in a confrontation with Slughorn and in an affecting scene, one of the film’s best moments, in which Harry must carry out a heartbreakingly painful task in connection with Dumbledore.
In these scenes, loyalty to and trust in Dumbledore emerges as a defining moral trait for Harry — a trait emphasized at the climax in an interesting departure from the text. Judging from an online plot synopsis of the book, it seems that Rowling has Harry sidelined at the climax in such a way that he is a purely passive observer, not a moral agent. By contrast, in the film Dumbledore allows Harry the dignity of a moral choice: one final dreadful test of his trust.
Whether the choice he makes is the right one is a question Harry must live with for the time being. What seems clear is that the loyalty Harry showed is the loyalty he can continue to expect from his friends as the war moves to the end game.
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Your review questions why Harry went after the Death Eaters in the marshland after they set fire to the Weasleys’ house. In the book, this does not happen. However, Harry’s motivation is likely because it was Bellatrix Lestrange who killed his godfather Sirius in the last book. So he could have been after her in particular.
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I saw Harry Potter today, and thought your review was accurate. But there is a moral problem with the movie (and the underlying book) that’s not evident until you’ve read the final book.
Dumbledore says to Snape, “Severus, please,” right before Snape kills him. It’s ambiguous at the time, but I’ll spoil the last book for you by telling you that [spoiler warning] Dumbledore is asking Snape to kill him so that Draco will survive. And I don’t see any way at all to justify that action on the part of either one. Any way I slice it, Dumbledore is asking Snape to kill him — an innocent party in the dispute. Even to save a third party, one may not choose the death of an innocent person as the means.
Perhaps I’m making too much of this, but the other lesser moral violations (telling of untruths, etc.) in the series don’t bother me nearly as much as this one.
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First of all, I love your reviews. I think I’ve told you before, but I agree 100% over 90% of the time. I don’t know what the math works out to. :)
I haven’t liked a single Harry Potter film since Chris Columbus jumped ship (or whatever happened). To me, Harry Potter is great because of the personal relationships. It seems to me that only Chris Columbus got it. Everyone else seems to only be interested in pushing the story and the effects.
Do you agree? Or am I totally missing the mark?
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