Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009) (Bayers Lake) Now for those of you in fear of your mortal soul just for having read the title of this potentially heretical posting, rest easy: the Vatican has officially approved the newest installment in the Harry Potter franchise. Apparently the learned guardians of a billion or so catholic souls around the globe are happy to endorse the film's "'clear' depiction of the eternal battle between good and evil represented by the struggle between Harry and his nemesis, the evil sorcerer Lord Voldemort."
Now I don't claim to have anywhere near the influence of the Holy See, but, for what its worth: I'm Yuri van der Leest, and I approve of this film. In fact, The Half-Blood Prince was my favorite of the books, and, after two pretty weak installments of the film franchise (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), is a welcome breathe of fresh air.

The pace of the film is masterful, with the story moving along quickly but engagingly - although there was one moment when I glanced at my watch, I quickly lost myself in the film again. This is largely due to the filmmakers having made some difficult choices to eliminate scenes from the book, an exercise that would have greatly benefited the jumbled mess that comprised The Goblet of Fire.

These plot choices make the story flow smoothly and produce a thoroughly enjoyable film, and are only questionable in retrospect: in the car on the way home, after the initial awe had started to give way to critical thought, we started to notice some of what was missing. The scene where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) travel to a storm-ravaged coast to secure a valuable object that can help weaken their foe is dark and painful in the book, but passes easily in the film. This is also apparent in the climactic confrontation between good and evil that pleased the Vatican so much: the epic confrontation of the novel is a passing occurrence on the screen.

What the filmmakers pay a lot of attention to, on the other hand, is the personal lives of the familiar magician triad of Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson). As in the novel, by this installment there is romance in the air for the tight crew of apprentice wizards, each augmented by their respective "person of interest." Indeed, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are growing up (though perhaps not so fast as the actors that are playing them), and they are paying attention to more than just every-flavour beans and butter beer!

Now romance has not been entirely absent from the franchise, Harry's junior-high courting of Cho Chang (Katie Leung) in The Goblet of Fire for example, but was largely a side-show to the action adventure and served - in the films - primarily to highlight the ineptitude of actors chosen more for marketability than talent (I believe). Not so in The Half-Blood Prince, which admittedly overplays the budding relationships as key plot lines, but at the same time highlights the fact that Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson must be taking acting classes: Watson has always been the strongest among the three, but even Radcliffe, a cringe-inducing bad actor in the last few installments, manages to convey subtle emotions. This admittedly could have to do with David Yates' direction, but is welcome nonetheless.

What Yates most certainly has a hand in is the overall look and feel of the film, which is awesome to behold, composed as it is with rich set pieces, luxurious, vibrant colors, and beautiful costumes that create a convincing fantasy world capable of completely encompassing the viewer for the entire 2.5-hour run time. The cinematography literally stunned me from the opening shots, which follow Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and Narcisca Malfoy (Helen McCrory) through narrow, shadow-filled, cobbled alleyways in the dark of night, the camera panning widely to use the long, narrow, seemingly cavernous space to gorgeous effect.

I am aware, of course, that the visual effects that I am praising - and even the warm, glowing ambiance of the film as a whole - are largely the result of the same computer graphics (CG) that I often lament, but they are used to such great effect in this film that I can find nothing to impugn. Indeed, the computer effects in The Half-Blood Prince are used like the paint on an artist's palette. Perhaps my favorite scenes are those that occur in the pensieve, a shallow bowl of water in which thread of memory are deposited and can be revisited at will. When Harry plunges his head into the bowl, we see the memory slowly coalesce in a shadowy form reminiscent of ink diffusing in a bowl of water.

It must be apparent by now that I am recommending this film whole-heartedly, so will thus tie up this posting with a shout out to one of the most delightful additions to the franchise's cast and character roster: Jim Broadbent playing Professor Horace Slughorn. A veteran of such classic fare as Time Bandits, Brazil, Richard III, and Gangs of New York, I am used to seeing Broadbent in minor roles in excellent films. Not so in The Half-Blood Prince, in which he portrays a key character beautifully and convincingly.

I understand that the final Potter chronicle will be adapted for the screen in two parts. Whether the logic of this is to milk the series for every last drop of cash or to relate the story as faithfully as possible, I cannot say, but I can venture one vote for keeping Yates at the helm and using The Half-Blood Prince as a benchmark.

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