Harry Potter and the One-Time Potterphobe
It should come as no surprise: this article is property of The One-Time Potterphobe.
Reviewing the sixth film in a world-famous fantasy series such as Harry Potter poses a somewhat unique challenge: you either are invested in the series and therefore require a detailed review of how Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince measures up against both source material and previous entries, or you aren’t. Which is to say one watches HP6 from either devotion, compulsion, or boredom.
For this one-time Potterphobe, it was a humid Columbus afternoon’s boredom with the hyper-masculine 90s ego-gratification fantasy tropes in Kull the Conqueror (1997) that drove me to give Harry Potter another chance early this July. The first film, years previous, had left me unimpressed (The Chosen One is an orphan star child? Been there, seen that). So I decided to try the better-reviewed Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002). Needless to say, while some of the chumminess of the young leads was a turn-off, the magical boarding school world of Harry Potter presented in Chamber of Secrets was a fresh and compellingly different entry to the escapist 80s and 90s fantasy that had peppered my adolescence. Despite poorly telegraphed twists, the moodily atmospheric Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) featuring the Nazgûl-inspired Dementors was a favorite. The quest-challenge narrative of Goblet of Fire (2005) which harkens back to courtly knight literature pleasantly surprised as it deepened the unfolding mythos of Voldemort’s return.
And then came David Yates’ Order of the Phoenix (2007).
Had I started with the at-the-time latest entry to the series, I would have been confirmed in my avoidance of the ubiquitous young wizard. After the dismal mess that was the cliche-ridden, plotting and watery cinematography of Order of the Phoenix, it was with heavy reluctance that I arranged to see Yates’ second outing in the theater with a friend. While the blockbuster-sized budget of Order of the Phoenix couldn’t buy its way out of its shoddy construction, the magical battle between the Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix in the final twenty minutes was breath-taking; the 200 million-plus budget for Half-Blood Prince promised even greater spectacle. As we left Harry Potter bleeding at the hands of Voldemort–out of immediate danger, but with the return to power of the Dark Lord–I was compelled, for the first time, to see the pyrotechnics play out on the big screen.
Fans of the film series–and I will now count myself amongst them–will rejoice that Harry Potter is once more on firm ground with Half-Blood Prince.1 There are the details that fans have anticipated (the much-touted return of Hogwart’s Quidditch, David Thewlis’ brief appearance, Dumbledore front-and-center in this film) that will satisfy the hard-core; the small references that the literary-junkie will enjoy (the wolf-man Fenrir, the ‘ferry’ over the pool of the dead); and for the casual viewer, the structure of film itself is an interesting study in contrasts about being “Chosen,” using the figures of Harry Potter as the Chosen One and Draco Malfoy as the One Who is Chosen, against the backdrop of the young leads falling in and out of love and dealing with the consequences of choosing well (Harry) or choosing poorly (Ron).
While the eponymous Half-Blood Prince — the owner and notator of Potter’s tattered potions book (which he receives as a second-place prize after Ron wrestles the pristine copy from the class closet) — should serve as the film’s focal point, Potter’s connection to the Half-Blood Prince and the changes which he goes through as he uses the notes in the book to get ahead of his classmates is downplayed in significance compared to the more immediate juxtaposition made between Potter and Malfoy. Our two marked leads (Harry by his scar from Voldemort; Malfoy by his tattoo following his initiation to the Death Eaters) both confront their status as Chosen. Malfoy falls to pieces in the bathroom following a brief confrontation with a girl he nearly kills by accident, he broods, he verges on the hysterical when he explains to Snape that he was “Chosen” by the Dark Lord to carry out his will. Potter, by contrast, finds his status as Chosen to be more of something he jokes about to Hermoine in the library (after which he receives a resounding smack). While Dumbledore intones Harry’s use and worth throughout the film — “you’re much too valuable!” he exclaims after he offers a small sacrifice of blood to enter the cavern of crystal — the only external proof of his worth seems to come from his high marks in potions (due to his Half Blood potions manual) or a quick-thinking remedy to save Ron from a poisoned drink. However, as Malfoy breaks down, unable to fulfill the Dark Lord’s will; Potter himself sobers up as he contemplates finishing the grim task set before him by Dumbledore. Ultimately, the film makes much of being Chosen as, in fact, far from being desirable. The ones who are Chosen are those who are compelled. To be Chosen is to have choice taken from you. The reestablishment of choice for Malfoy comes when he refuses to carry out his orders to kill Dumbledore, lowering his wand, unable to commit murder to save his own life. Potter’s choice has yet to come — I believe the two-part Deathly Hallows (2010 and 2011) will reveal Harry’s final acts of choice.
The one flat note was the reveal of the identity of the “Half-Blood Prince.” Perhaps because material had to be cut for sake of time (or perhaps because the weakness was an intrinsic part of the source material), when the identity is made known the audience doesn’t feel like it is let in on a grand secret; Bellatrix Lestrange is setting fire to Haggrid’s hovel; the school dining hall has been smashed, the floating candles snuffed out; Harry has witnessed Malfoy’s small act of courage doused by a larger act of betrayal. In all of this chaos, what does it even matter who the Half-Blood Prince is? The more innocent concerns of that boarding school intrigue wilt under the fury of Voldemort’s minions. Perhaps meant to be a comment on the loss of innocence, the passing of time and interest in the trivial — but I remain convinced that it could have been handled in a more germane way.
As in past films, there is an odd sense of voyeurism created through the cast of professors and instructors being made to stand as silent witnesses to the minor dramas of Ron, Hermoine, and Harry. The most telling incident occurs when Ron is convalesced following a near-fatal poisoning; as Ron’s possessive squeeze and Hermoine fight over who, depending on their pecking order in the Ron World of Important People, should be allowed to stay at his side, Dumbledore, Snape, and Slughorn look on as if this minor domestic spat between 15-year-olds was, in fact, a pressing concern. Perhaps this scene was meant to convey a sense of kindly remembrance and kinship with the players in this domestic drama — “ah to be young and in love,” Dumbledore remarks — yet the presence of the older audience only serves to heighten the somewhat paradoxical relationship as viewers. We, in the audience, are allowed to look on and say, “aww, gee whiz kids.” But when the professors in the film do the same, suddenly, we’re the strange and somewhat uncomfortable onlookers, impinging on the scene with our presence.
Quibbles aside, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a successful film. And its success, I think, belies the auteurist argument that my colleagues at Playtime have made in regards to Yates’ maturing as a director2. To lay the success of Half-Blood Prince at Yates’ feet — or the failure of Phoenix — is, I think, to ultimately miss the point of film-as-collaboration. Whereas Order of the Phoenix suffered from incompetent plotting papered over with montages, frantic and generally incomprehensible editing (nowhere is this terrible editing and cinematography more evident than in the opening bullying scene of the film, leaving a bad aftertaste in the viewer’s mouth), Half-Blood Prince replaces the broken cogs with scribe Steve Kloves and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. Kloves, a veteran of the Potter series, penned the screenplays for all of the films except Order of the Phoenix; Delbonnel was the Director of Photography on the visually stunning Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001) that brought as as-of-yet unmatched magical realism to Paris through his amazingly active, yet controlled, lens. The swoop that Delbonnel’s camera does from Ron and his new squeeze embracing on the stairs to Malfoy’s wan face looking out over the school grounds is so powerfully reminiscent of Amélie as she skips stones from the pont that it could be a trademark. Gone from this film are the montages3 and the rather incomprehensible insertion of Harry Potter into the world of adult-level intrigue of Voldemort, the Council, and the Order of the Phoenix without actually, you know, letting him in on the story. A seemingly random character introduction from Phoenix — Luna Lovegood — actually finds herself integrated into the plot and central theme this go-through. A deft writerly touch allowed the more-complicated-than-usual structure of Half-Blood Prince to rest on a series of contrasts: a past/present flashback structure of memories of Tom Riddle at Hogwarts surrounded by the contrast between Malfoy and Potter. To credit these achievements as the sole property of David Yates is to do a grand disservice to special touch Kloves and Delbonnel lent this film.
In the spirit of credit where credit is due, series casting director Fiona Weir worked yet another feat to cast Hero Fiennes-Tiffin as the damaged young orphan Tom Riddle; the detached and dispirited boy was genuinely unsettling to watch. This brief psychological investigation of the dark wizard’s origins through his interaction with Dumbledore and Professor Slughorn, I think, speak well of the understanding of the nature of Dark Lords. They are not forged, but educated, grown, turned out of Hogwarts just like our heroes. While they may be broken goods coming in, it is the path they chose — not the one that is chosen for them — that ultimately decides their quality.
This review has drawn on; the reveal of my past as a Potterphobe will appear in a highly-anticipated sequel, expected out sometime in 2010.
Edited by David Jordan.
- Fans of the books may find themselves afflicted with Tolkienitis, much as fans of Lord of the Rings were in 2002 and 2003 with the glaring rewrites and omissions of The Two Towers and Return of the King. I haven’t read Rowling’s work; the first 50 or so pages of her first novel reavel her to be a sub-par stylist. As the cringe-worthy one-liner delivered in Order of the Phoenix on Dumbledore’s style will confirm, it ain’t a petty concern. ↩
- This comment is made in reference to Alex M’s post on the Playtime Magazine forum. While we both agree on the film in many ways, especially in that we both enjoyed it, I do disagree with the auteurist bent which he promulgated in this post. As a writer, I always become a bit cross to see the director get all of the cheese, and the screenwriter largely ignored. ↩
- That’s when you need to put yourself to the test, and show the passage of time! ↩