The End Is Near
2009 // UK - USA // David Yates // July 22, 2009 // Theatrical Print
B - It seems safe to say at this late date that pining for a rigorously faithful adaptation of a Harry Potter novel is an exercise in fanboy/fangirl futility. Devotees of the Potter series—and I count myself among that ubiquitous club—are inevitably better off appreciating each new cinematic incarnation as a freestanding indulgence of a dense and often daring fantasy aesthetic. More substantively, and with varying success, each Potter film has attempted to evoke a distinctive tone and set of themes, an endeavor that has always been constrained by the fact that each film is but a small segment in an epic saga. The visual excitement that Alfonso Cuarón brought to Prisoner of Azkaban has not yet been matched, and for a time it seemed as though Mike Newell's adept juggling of Goblet of Fire's pubescent terrors—physical, emotional, sexual, and existential—would also prove to be a high point. Fortunately for the series's long-term relevancy, director David Yates has bested all his predecessors save Cuarón with the thrilling Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and that includes himself. Although Yates rose to the occasion in delivering a satisfactory Order of the Phoenix two years ago, the result was in some ways disappointing. Phoenix often seemed a hodgepodge of scenes that lacked both cohesion and dramatic propulsion, with the notable exception of the terrifying climactic battle in the Department of Mysteries. As a storyteller, Yates exhibits a significant evolution with Prince, evincing a clear understanding for the source material's most affecting narrative arcs: Malfoy's torment, Slughorn's shame, and the overdue germination of love between Ron and Hermione. At the same time, the director demonstrates a deft handling of mood, alternately evoking giddy joy and chilling horror without subjecting his audience to whiplash. In other words, Half-Blood Prince does fantasy adventure exactly as it should be done.
Given that the Potter franchise has now reached its sixth film, one question has become more salient than ever: How essential are the novels and prior films to an appreciation of the latest adaption? Or, to put it more acidly, if a viewer hasn't followed the Potter story up to this point, should they even bother? With Half-Blood Prince—and, to be honest, every film since Chamber of Secrets—the answer is decisively in the negative, but that's less a condemnation of these particularly films than the essential limitations of the format in telling such an episodic, sustained tale, especially one that relies on discrete school years for its structure. Anyone who hasn't followed the series along in one form or another is likely to be lost in Half-Blood Prince, both narratively and emotionally.
With that disclaimer out of the way, Prince is as involving and visceral as the series has ever been, balancing long-term payoffs with the immediacy of its fantasy wonders. To select just one example, while there wasn't so much as a whiff of Quidditch in the past two films, Prince devotes a healthy chunk of its running time to Ron's travails as keeper for Team Gryffindor. Yates doesn't provide the context that Rowling did, but it's for the best; dithering over team politics and the sport's finer points would be deadly nightshade to the film's brisk pacing and tone of swelling doom. Yet Prince retains the heartfelt essence of this aspect of the plot—the triumphalism of Ron's athletic victory—to provide a respite from the gloom and also hint at future turns in the story.
Yates and go-to Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves adopt much the same approach throughout Half-Blood Prince, necessarily slicing away swathes of the novel and reducing the story to its dramatic skeleton. Most conspicuously, many of the relationship subplots have been excised completely (Fleur and Bill) or merely alluded to (Lupin and Tonks). Yet Prince mostly avoids the limp and ragged character that bedeviled the previous films, which often rushed to tick off of the Potter mythos checklist while failing to elaborate on any of the details. At their worst, the Potter films have proven to be lifeless tracings of Rowlings' dizzyingly intricate universe. Yates dodges this bullet deftly during this outing, with a couple of discouraging exceptions. (Most annoyingly, the identity of the eponymous Prince is revealed with a grandiose gesture, but without further explanation, it proves to be meaningless moment.) The film focuses on the drama of the primary storylines, and even has time for an original scene in which Bellatrix Lestrange attacks the Weasley Burrow. Whether this offends the hardcore fan is irrelevant. The scene serves Yates' overarching purpose nicely; namely, to maintain the tension and terror of the film's action sequences and establish an authentic aura of danger within his fantastical milieu. The series has achieved this before, but never so consistently, or with such an keen eye towards a disciplined pace. (Remember Azkaban's invigorating time-travel sequence? Do you remember that it went on for far, far too long?)
Ever since Chris Columbus blessedly gave up the reins of the series, the Potter franchise has proven to be an inventive and pleasurable journey into the visual and aural texture of Rowling's world. While many of the plot elements from the novels are given short shrift, the films are furiously detailed works where production design is concerned, exhibiting uncommonly inventive and stunning conceptions of both the series' iconic set pieces and its tiniest ornaments. The consistently compelling (and remarkably animated) vistas that Yates brought to Phoenix find rivals among Prince's sights, most notably a Room of Requirement that seems part scrap heap and part museum, the cthonian vault for one of Voldemort's artifacts, and a series of magical flashbacks that drip with grimy menace.
The performances are serviceable enough, with the adults providing the gravitas and the kids the charm and adolescent relatibility, as usual for the series. Michael Gambon's sprightly, prickly Dumbledore has long surpassed Richard Harris's magisterial but colorless performance, and here Gambon reaches the gratifying endpoint of his portrayal, achieving all the impact that his final scenes warrant. The other standout in Prince is Tom Felton, who delivers the waxy fear, venom, and desperation that the film's canny focus on Draco's plight requires. Daniel Radcliffe, for his part, bestows Harry with a tinting of previously unseen strength, though whether this is due to a conscious decision or Radcliffe's own (belatedly) maturating talents is not clear. As with the previous outings, Half-Blood Prince is never as poignant as the film-makers imagine. However, Yates has created what might be the series' most effective episode, if only for its skillful blend of satisfying drama and deep wonder.