Is it possible for a movie to be really well done, really rousing, wildly entertaining, and still leave you a little cold? If so, that’s the case with the latest Potter installment, Half-Blood Prince.
It’s rare that a movie leaves me so confused about my own reaction. It’s not that I’m a strict “loved it” or “hated it” guy, but usually I have very clear and specific arguments as to whether a movie was good, bad, or somewhere in between. That’s not the case here, though, so forgive me if my arguments seem a bit muddy–my love of all things Potter has, no doubt, clouded my vision, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Okay, now that the disclaimer-ific preamble is out of the way, let’s get down to it, shall we? I’ll keep this as broad, vague, and spoiler free as I can.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is perhaps the most well-made of all six current Harry Potter films. The acting is superb, the casting fantastic, and the direction truly magical. In this film, we get the most complex and compelling character work we’ve seen thus far in the series, much of it coming from Tom Felton’s surprisingly poignant performance as Draco Malfoy, now a man on a tortured quest, and Michael Gambon’s vulnerable Professor Dumbledore.
Somehow, though, the movie manages to balance it’s serious subject matter with some truly delightful comedic sequences. I don’t know that I’ve laughed this much at any of the previous Harry Potter films…which, of course, makes the impending dark tragedies all the more tragic.
No, I can say without a doubt that every technical, story, and character element in this film (minus a couple of awkward cuts and the occasional awkward line delivery) is spot-on and well done. Were you to watch this film as a series of scenes, out of order, it would all feel 100% spot-on. The problem, then, comes from something much less easily defined–somewhere in the glue that pulls it all together.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a moment to steep ourselves in the world of J.K Rowling, shall we?
We meet Harry Potter, the boy who lived, only a few weeks after the events of Phoenix. Harry is still getting over the (SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN PHOENIX!) death of his uncle, Sirius, but that doesn’t stop him from hitting on a particularly attractive coffee shop waitress.
Alas, this plot line is not to be explored. Instead, Dumbledore shows up and whisks Harry off to meet Professor Slughorn, an individual who, we learn, possesses a memory of utmost importance to Harry’s impending battle with the Dark Lord.
After convincing Slughorn to take up his old mantle as Potions teacher at Hogwarts, Harry returns to his beloved school. As always, though, something is amiss. This time it has to do with Draco Malfoy, Harry’s nemesis since year one, who is planning some unspecified, sinister plot.
Can Harry obtain Slughorn’s precious memory and uncover Malfoy’s evil plot before it’s too late? Eh, might be best not to answer that one…
Along the way we are treated to ample amounts of budding romance. This is one area of the film with which I was pleasantly surprised. When director David Yates originally said that he wanted to have “a bit of a laugh” with this one, I was worried that the kids’ love lives would be pulled front-and-center with a lot of out-of-place yuck-yuck jokes.
But the jokes are surprisingly funny, and the romances are more emotionally involving and satisfying than I thought possible. Great job, Dave. If anything, these relationships help to paint the film’s final scenes in a tragic light…because not only do we care about what happens to these characters, we also care what happens between them.
For those of you familiar with the final pages of the novel (as well as the leaked plot points that had many of us Potter fans worrying a few months back), have no fear. Things are changed, yes, but everything makes perfect sense. The pacing is pitch perfect, and events are given the proper emotional weight.
As I said earlier, there is something missing. While the movie never really dragged, it did have a tendency to feel a little episodic with one scene crashing into another unrelated scene. But this has always been a problem with Potter–or with attempting a faithful adaptation of any long book with rabid fans.
I think the problem is that somehow the movie never really lets you catch a breath. Shots are cut short, and deeply affecting moments (like one of Draco Malfoy sobbing alons) are cut just a few frames too short. It’s like the filmmakers are so eager to get the story moving that they undercut some of the films most important emotional moments.
The problem, as I said earlier, is in the glue. I feel like there is a great Potter film in the movie I just watched–if only it were cut slightly differently and given some room to breathe. It’s a nebulous and personal thing, when a scene should end or whether to use a cut or dissolve, but it makes all the difference in the world when it comes to drawing you into a film.
Enough of a difference that when the lights came up I couldn’t think of a single performance, plot point, or shot that was anything but great, but I still had to turn to my friends and say, “Yeah, it was good.”
Good, not great. And that, whether fair or not, is a little disappointing for a Potter fan like me.
I’ll admit that each and every one of my problems with the film is intensely personal. If someone saw the same film and argued that it was the best in the franchise, I’d be hard fought to argue against them. Me, though, I still maintain that Order of the Phoenix is the best Potter has to offer…so far.
This might change on multiple viewings (I plan to see the movie tonight at midnight with the fanatical crowd), and the film might gain some weight with the release of the seventh and eighth films. This one might very well be better looked at as a gateway that leads us into the dramatically different final installments.
One thing’s for sure, though: Hogwarts will never be the same. In the last fifteen minutes of the movie, one gets the overwhelming feeling that too much has changed for our characters, and there’s no going back. To be honest, that’s what the sixth movie (and book) is all about at its core.
On that front, mission accomplished.