Harry Potter is a bona fide phenomenon, and any new instalment of the ongoing saga of the boyhood wizard and his sorcerer chums exists on a plane way beyond the realms of mere mortal blockbusters. There have been highs and there have been lows, but one constant remains: Harry is massive. And so we wait, with bated breath, as film number six, Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, arrives in cinemas next week and the world gears up for a fresh bout of Pottermanina. Good news then, because it’s a corker…maybe even the best of them all.
One criticism levelled at the Potter films is the generic nature of their structure: Harry goes to Hogwarts, a new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher turns up, some schoolyard japes ensue, a mystery is uncovered, Harry solves it and then defeats Lord Voldemort, the end. Half-Blood Prince eschews this formula by throwing you straight into the action from the off.
There is an awesome opening sequence involving the Millennium Bridge, before we meet Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), clearly becoming tired with the trappings of his celebrity, in a greasy train station café. Dumbledore, gracefully revised by Michael Gambon and given a central role at last, then ‘apparates’ Harry to go and see the mysterious Professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). There is great scene, aping Disney’s classic, Sword In The Stone, as Dumbledore reassembles Slughorn’s muggle residence-come-squat.
Harry is soon reunited with his chief cohorts Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) and the plot proper begins – which leads directly on from the last Potter outing, Order Of The Phoenix. It should be advised at this point, that, if for any reason, you’ve not seen any of the previous films, Half-Blood Prince won’t make a jot of sense. Seriously, get with the programme here.
A key theme of Half-Blood Prince is the characters’ transition from childhood to young adulthood. Radcliffe, Grint and Watson have matured considerably as actors since the wide-eyed, ‘ooh, look…magic’ enthusiasm of the early films, and director David Yates gives his three leads the licence to express this.
Harry is no longer the head boy-in-waiting, public school hero, having developed the hint of a cocky teenage swagger – understandable due to his superstar status as the ‘Chosen One’. Grint’s Ron – who seems to have put in quite a few stints at the gym – constricted by being Harry’s cheeky sidekick in many of the previous outings, gets a real part, which, as the most naturally charismatic of the three, is welcome. Finally, Hermione isn’t merely the highly-strung class swot with an answer for everything anymore, but a rounded and believable character in her own right.
The constant references to teenage sexual awakening do get a tad tiresome in places – even some rudimentary establishing shots depict the nooks and crannies of Hogwarts’ gothic corridors as the perfect place for a snog rather than revealing a trademark throwaway fantastical flourish – and, with a few cracks in the plot, perhaps too much screen time is devoted to this. But at least it makes Half-Blood Prince a warmer film after Phoenix‘s mistaken attempt to darken the tone of the franchise.
Story-wise, Half-Blood Prince follows the Potter recipe for success pretty closely. Author J.K. Rowling was never too subtle with the introduction of her plot devices, but here the obligatory new magical object – in this case a brilliant potions book – is given a backseat/sidelined in favour of uncovering the truth behind the new Potions Master (Snape finally gets the Dark Arts job after six years of trying) Professor Slughorn’s relationship with the young Voldemort. Malfoy also spends a lot of time lurking around, but this time around, his petty rivalry with Harry could be getting serious.
Those familiar with the books will know that Half-Blood Prince has one of the most emotional finales of the entire series. This is a pivotal moment, not only for this film, but also as an introduction into the closing chapters of Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2, and the saga as a whole. Yates handles this well, and there will be more than a few people leaving the theatre a little bit choked up.
Special mentions should also be given to both Alan Rickman as the sinister Professor Snape and Helena Bonham Carter, who is absolutely sensational as wicked witch Bellatrix Lestrange – one of the best castings in modern memory. Rickman had really made the role his own, while Bonham Carter’s performance is a perfect mix of fiendish kook, simmering mania and barely restrained violence.
Some of the old gripes remain, like Harry’s inability to do any really impressive magic. While the older wizards fly around causing havoc, Potter is restricted to pointing his wand and shouting the odd spell, leading us to ask what they actually learn at Hogwarts. And the need to truncate a several hundred-page book into a two-and-a-half hour film means subplots tend to get glossed over. But Half-Blood Prince aces it where it matters, and even the most die-hard of Potter purists will be happy with the end result.
In a summer season that has been patchy at best, Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince proves that old-fashioned techniques like character development and storytelling are still more important than a barrage of bombastic special effects and eye-watering set pieces. It probably won’t convert any of the haters, but for those who matter most – the fans – Half-Blood Prince proves that the most beloved tale of modern times is close to fulfilling its mighty potential.
Finally, after eight years, the longest prelude in cinematic history is over. The scene is set, the players poised, and with Deathly Hallows, Potter may just hit the magical paydirt.
Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince is released in the UK on 15th July.
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