Arts and Culture

'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince'

Still a great ride, the Hogwarts Express chugs down a long, dark tunnel.

By Steve Burgess 16 Jul 2009 |

Steve Burgess is back from his European jaunt and adjusting to nights at the Cineplex instead of the piazza.

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Nice to be chosen: Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Hermione (Emma Watson).

"You need a shave, Harry."

You don't have to be a wizard to know what Dumbledore means. Like the Hogwarts headmaster, we can see through the soft, painted lighting that bathes a no-longer-quite-so-young Harry Potter and friends in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The gang continues to grow up in the sixth adaptation of the J.K. Rowling series (there will be eight all together, with Rowling's final book split into two films).

And due credit must be given. Potter 6 is no Rocky 6. This is a franchise that is both artistically and commercially unique. The astounding success of Harry Potter Inc. has allowed the filmmakers to follow an uncompromising path in crafting a series that has more in common with quality episodic television than typical movie sequels.

That lack of compromise has consequences for potential audiences. If you haven't got on board the Hogwarts train by now, you are probably too late. Half-Blood Prince makes no concession to newcomers -- an eight-part serial simply cannot afford to keep catching people up on previous developments. That's why a series like this is such a rare event. Without the commercial safety net of Rowling's built-in audience, the pandering boffins of Hollywood would never have the guts to release a major summer film that requires so much familiarity with the story.

Long, dark journey

That story is getting progressively darker, and Half-Blood Prince is the darkest yet. This one is the Empire Strikes Back of the series -- all plot and process with little in the way of satisfying resolution. In general, that's a good thing.

Not all good, mind. Even for a dedicated follower of the films, the storytelling in Half-Blood Prince sometimes feels offhand and somewhat slapdash. There are bits of swallowed dialogue that might profitably have been re-shot. And once again the pressure to get familiar characters and plot details on screen results in a movie that could easily have been trimmed from its 153-minute running time. The dead spider could have been cut, for sure. And that's not just arachnophobia speaking.

Still, Potter fans won't mind. They want to bask in the atmosphere of their favourite imagined world and share the camaraderie of their wizard friends. In his second turn at the Potter helm, director David Yates (tellingly, a veteran of British miniseries like State of Play) collaborates with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel to give Hogwarts a dreamy, spooky look. Much of the movie looks tinted, replicating a technique that still photographers call "light painting." It fits with a plot where evil appears to be having its way.

Lifestyles of the magic and famous

Half-Blood Prince is not all wizards and spells. It's also about celebrity. The opening scene shows Harry facing a blaze of media flashbulbs, and throughout the movie his growing fame is central to the story. The grounding that this brings to a tale of magic and fantasy is one of Half-Blood Prince's greatest accomplishments. In one scene, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) notices a comely student making eyes at him. "She's only interested in you because you're the Chosen One," Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) scolds him.

"But I am the Chosen One!" Harry responds brightly. And why wouldn't a hormonal young wizard work that angle?

Meanwhile Hermione's chosen one is good old Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), third member of the trio. I don't know how this worked in the books, but onscreen it's a bit of a stretch. In their scenes together, Watson and Radcliffe have oodles more magic than she and Grint ever conjure up.

Lord Voldemort looms large as usual, but in absentia -- Ralph Fiennes never appears in Half-Blood Prince. We see only Voldemort's larval self, young Tom Riddle (fittingly played by Fiennes' nephew, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin). Half-Blood Prince tells the story of Riddle's path to become Voldemort, and of attempts by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) to uncover the dark lord's secrets. Naturally, Harry is key to Dumbledore's plan -- not because Harry is powerful, but because he is famous. It's a clever twist that sets this series apart from more ethereal fantasies like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, despite the many shared story elements.

Hold it!

Also setting the series apart (particularly from Star Wars) is the quality of the performances. As Professor Horace Slughorn, Jim Broadbent is just the latest great character actor to dine at the Hogwarts banquet. The franchise has been like a government subsidy program for British thespians. One more reason, in this Transformers summer, to be grateful for some quality mainstream fantasy. Bring on the Deathly Hallows.

And a final note to those who, like me, have managed to stay unfamiliar with Rowling's storyline: beware of post-film restrooms.

Male fans at least risk finding themselves standing, hands occupied, unable to plug their ears as young Potter experts pour in and begin chattering about plot details yet to come. Be forewarned. Try to hold it till you get home.  [Tyee]

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