Monday, July 20, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

At this point, it is satisfying enough to go to a new Harry Potter movie looking for subtle differences, similar themes and scenes played in different keys and at different tempos. With six films, the series is consistently good in all aspects of its production. It’s simply enjoyable enough to be reunited with these characters, these actors, for another few hours. There’s a joy to be found in merely seeing these people again. Oh, look how they’ve grown, we can say about the child – no, young adult now – actors. More importantly, once we are absorbed into the world, we can say Look, there’s Hagrid! McGonagall! Flitwick! Why ignore the pleasures of entering into a fantasy world and enjoying its texture, its populace, its richness of imagination?

With The Half-Blood Prince, the Potter films have become a firmly mature piece of fantasy storytelling. This movie cannot be dismissed as mere child’s play. It’s a beautifully languid film of great humor and emotional impact, powerful in its exploration of the ways the past intrudes on the present, the ways children of all ages will behave when hoping to carry out the wishes of a parental figure. In this film, there are two students on two separate missions for their elders. There's Potter himself, working for Dumbledore, but Draco Malfoy stands out in a wrenching and tense plotline that gives Tom Felton some real acting to do after five films of practicing his sneering. Malfoy has been chosen by Voldemort to carry out an aspect of his evil plan, which sends Malfoy into an unbearable angst. He becomes more than a stock bully, more than a proxy for his more villainous father (played by the great Jason Issacs). Malfoy gains great depth and becomes a richer, more interesting character through his torment.

All of the characters get richer characterization, more emotional dialogue, this time around. The characters are older once more, sending the teens headlong into fully realized crushes and romances in addition to the usual doom and gloom of the foreboding encroaching forces of darkness. At times the film threatens to become a tad too sudsy or cutesy but pulls back at just the right moments. The lead trio – still Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson – have become more confident and skilled, once again, successfully navigating this tricky tone. Interspersed among the students' antics and the dark wizard’s evil schemes, as usual, is the great adult cast. Some, like Maggie Smith and Robbie Coltrane, have little more to do than show up once in a while to remind us of their presence and their perfect inhabitation of their characters. Others, like the always great Alan Rickman and Michael Gambon, in their best performances of the series, get more to do this time around, meatier monologues, shocking revelations and satisfying moments. Still others, like Jim Broadbent, are new to the series and fit in perfectly. Has there ever been a better cast series of movies? Every role thus far is perfectly filled and perfectly played.

Taking the directorial reins once again is David Yates, who merely competently handled the last installment. Here, working with veteran – but new to the series – cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, he creates one of the finest looking Potter films yet, casting even the lightest, funniest scenes in a haze of melancholy. The compositions are splendid; a charming early scene looks straight up the middle of a winding staircase with different characters at different heights. Later, an underwater scene plays out in a long, nearly silent, take with a beautiful dapple of green and orange. It’s ostensibly a scene of terror, and so it is, but it’s shot through with a deadly hypnotic visual charm. Throughout the film there are scenes of equal skill. It’s as if Terrence Malick was collaborating with the ghost of Orson Welles to create such skillful visual interest. It’s an approach that is vastly different from CuarĂ³n’s work in Prisoner of Azkaban, but an approach that creates an equal effect. With an effortlessly moving camera revealing angles and crannies, gorgeous colors and palpable atmosphere, never before has the wizard world, Hogwarts specifically, looked so eminently livable, explicable, fit to explore.

This is a film in no hurry, drunk on its own mood and tone. At first glance, that may seem like a backhanded compliment, and for a lesser movie it would be, but after so many hours of Potter films, I care about this world, these characters, and I feel a genuine swelling of happiness and familiarity in getting to spend more time here. It helps that the mood and tone are first-rate and evocative. We’re truly in horror territory at times, with long gliding shots down gloomy hallways, creepily distended tension, and even a few great jump moments. At other times, we’re in a great boarding-school melodrama, with easy comedy, moody students, shifting allegiances, and a sinister and strange faculty. This is a magical series indeed, with so much feeling and warmth consistently present amidst its shifting tones. The film feels of one piece, sending warm laughter and cold shivers in equal measure, sometimes shifting in seconds. (Look at the scene involving the love potion cure for an example). Near the film’s end, we are given one of the most elegantly moving scenes in the entire series, a scene that fills the screen with a soft light that, however briefly, chases away the encroaching clouds of darkness. The movie does the same. It's a fine piece of escapism, a fine piece of Hollywood craftsmanship, and one of the finest Potters.

The Half-Blood Prince succeeds not just because it’s a compelling world, a gripping story, or an interesting allegory, though it is all three. It succeeds not just because it has excellent production values, great source material, and a hard-working and uniformly excellent cast and crew, though it has those too. It succeeds because we care about these characters, have seen them grow, age, and change, and are consistently presented reason to have confidence that this series will do them – and their source material – justice.

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