Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The Charlotte Observer
Editor's note: Lawrence Toppman will review significant movies from time to time in The Observer. He'll still cover theater and write his Culture column on Sundays.
Forget, for a moment, all the wizards and werewolves. Ignore the resurrection of Flight-of-Death, which is what “Voldemort” translates to in humbler English. And consider this:
The real magic in J.K. Rowling's books comes from the transformation of a frightened, perplexed orphan into a confident, principled young man who accepts the gravest responsibilities of adulthood. That's a journey all of us have to make, usually with parents and without wands and spells, and it's why the Harry Potter novels will resonate with readers down the decades to come.
It's also why the films have been successful. We go to gasp at giant snakes and spiders, or to shiver at the absolute and scarcely comprehensible evil of the risen Voldemort. But we go back because we're caught up in Harry's human dilemmas, which resemble monumental versions of our own.
That's why “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” was the most thoughtfully satisfying of the first six books, and why the film version deserves just as much praise.
Director David Yates, who joined the series with “Order of the Phoenix,” worked with writer Steve Kloves to cut the book down ruthlessly and intelligently. (Kloves has written every Potter screenplay except “Phoenix,” and he was missed.)
Gone are Grimmauld Place and the house elves. Gone are the flashbacks of Tom Riddle's forebears. Gone is the engagement of Bill Weasley to Fleur Delacour and all the domestic turmoil around it. Gone is the Ministry of Magic's attempt to use Harry as a front man.
Gone even is the climactic battle between Death Eaters and Hogwarts students. Yes, a big-budget blockbuster has cut a special effects sequence, an action as rare as a fly-over by Halley's Comet. (Or rarer. I've actually seen Halley's Comet.)
I didn't miss them, because the taut script keeps all the essentials of the main narrative – Harry and Dumbledore try to contain the Death Eaters and look for Horcruxes containing pieces of Voldemort's soul – and retains the humor of romantic misunderstandings and the horror of impending chaos. The only disservice done to the book is that Riddle, the younger Voldermort, is now a conventional bad-seed child who inspires too little pity.
There are two new characters, potions professor Horace Slughorn and Draco Malfoy. (I know, but bear with me.) The book's Slughorn is a celebrity-stalking, lard-bellied coward; Jim Broadbent plays him with more dignity and pathos, as a man who knows his own limitations and weeps over them.
Malfoy (played by Tom Felton, who steps up his game) has heretofore been a cardboard villain, an albino shadow of his creepy father. Now he's seen as the other side of Harry, a malleable wizard whose skills have been perverted by evil. (They're like the two sides of Anakin Skywalker.)
Harry and Draco have both been “chosen” by Voldemort: The Dark Lord chooses Draco as the instrument to attack Hogwarts from within, and he chooses Harry as the enemy against whom he must make a life-or-death stand. Both young men chafe under their weighty destinies but cannot escape.
And the characters are young men now (and women), for all the talk about “snogging” (kissing) and quidditch championships. (Quidditch has become so irrelevant that we get one game but no contest for Hogwarts' championship.)
Their loves are a source for humor, but not mockery. They are more ready to claim their rights and assert their independence. Subtle changes in the story reinforce that feeling: An adult fixes Harry's broken nose in the book, but a fellow student repairs it in the movie. The world can safely be trusted to them now, should the Dumbledores fail or pass away.
The mood of the film is darker in every way. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel uses a palette of grays, browns and blacks. The score by Nicholas Hooper (who worked with Yates on “Phoenix”) contains scarcely a note of triumph, though it's never too heavy.
The main visual motif is a series of dissolving or obscure images, and it extends to the end credits. Water conceals or reveals surprises; fog swirls around the Penseive, Dumbledore's repository of memories; Death Eaters fly in impenetrable clouds as black as squid ink.
Harry must enter the mists in anxiety and emerge stronger. Everything about his world is uncertain, not to be trusted – and who among us hasn't felt the same way, even if witches didn't lurk around our corners?