Friday, July 17, 2009

The Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter: A Review

"Severus... Please..."

Albus Dumbledore

Now, entirely spoiler free!

I exited the theatre after the credits have finished rolling and found myself unready to return to the real world. Good fantasy feels like a narcotic high. Great fantasy - if I may be so bold to claim - is a transcendent religious experience. I left with the awe of discovery and the chills of true magic still clinging hard to me, and I felt what I can only describe as a form of withdrawal. There was a suffocating sense of dread that I might never ever get the chance again to be an audience of such a stupendous work of art, and I say this without irony or hyperbole. It was so unbearable that I had to stuff my headphones into my ears and put Hedwig's theme on loop just so I don't crash too hard back into my physical body. That is what a genuinely good cinematic experience is like, you know. The comfy seats and optimal air-conditioning, the minimum of intruding noises and errant lights, and most of all, the dark - they summarily serve to dissociate your eyes and mind from your body, and to immerse them right in the Story. A fantasy story demands this far more than stories from any other genre because the minute you remember that none of its elements are feasible or logical, the spell breaks utterly.

Before I proceed any further, let me just put it out here that my acquaintance with the Harry Potter books to be quite irregular. I started by reading the 4th book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, first - disastrously spoiling fan favourite, 3rd book Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, for myself. Resultantly, I simply cannot appreciate the genius of Prisoner of Azkaban which the majority of the fandom opine to be self-evident. Also, I hate the main character, Harry, and tended to pretend that Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape are the true centres of these novels instead. All these factors ultimately predisposed me to consider Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to be best book of the seven - which I do (you'll know why if you know your Harry Potter mythlore well). So, do not expect any critical objectivity from me.

Half Blood Prince Poster
That tagline is absolutely perfect.

Daniel Radcliffe has always been adequate at playing the Boy Who Lived, but he has to stand in the shadows of actors and actresses far more talented than he is. The movies were exemplary studies in casting. Alan Rickman was the perfect Snape, despite being far older than the character he's suppose to play, and his portrayal inadvertently cemented the sallow Potions Master as my favourite character in the series, both in print and on celluloid.

There are misses, of course, and the furthest miss in the cast was the portrayal of Hogwart's Headmaster, Professor Albus Dumbledore by Sir Richard Harris in the first two films. He is far too elderly and decrepit to live up to the character's reputation of being the only wizard Voldemort ever feared. After the passing of Sir Richard Harris (rest his soul, but glad he's out of the picture), they brought in Michael Gambon to fill the beard and half-moon spectacles. Gambon possesses the kindliness and authority of Dumbledore's voice, the grace and vigour of Dumbledore's movements and most importantly, the twinkle and steel of Dumbledore's eyes. And in the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, he finally brought the character to life for me. It was a privilege to have met the real Albus Dumbledore. Give the man a Best Supporting Actor nomination, I say!

Dumbledore and Harry
"Being me has its privileges," says Dumbledore. That's a crowning moment of awesome right there.

This film also brought us Jim Broadbent in the shoes of Professor Horace Slughorn, who was enticed out of retirement by Dumbledore to return to Hogwarts as Potions Master. He taught Lord Voldemort when he was still Tom Riddle, and also Harry's mother, Lily. Now, I will not reveal too much about this character for the benefit of those who have not read the book or watched the movie but I'll say this; he is a deliciously complex character and moral study, and holds much of the same appeal to me as Snape. Horace Slughorn is a coward who wants no part at all in the wizarding war at large between Voldemort's Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix. All he wants to do is profit from befriending Hogwarts students who he believes will one day be in positions of influence and fame. Beneath this character, however, is a man with a bent back carrying the weight of a tremendous guilt. The object of his guilt, coincidentally, is yet another aspect he shares with Snape. I will not reveal to you whether Slughorn managed to find absolution or not in The Half Blood Prince, but it suffices you to know that the end of that particular plot strand was heartbreaking. I credit Jim Broadbent's stellar acting for this. Unfortunately his stellar acting talent also showed me just how lousy an actor Daniel Radcliffe really is in their final scene together.

Slughorn and Harry
Slughorn handing Harry a plot-important item.

The essence of the story of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is tragedy, make no mistake about it and I have an unhealthy fascination with tragedies. Happy endings tie up stories in neat little bundles and let everyone forget them with a smile. A sad end makes one pensive and thoughtful, sometimes for weeks. The moment of peripeteia in Half-Blood Prince is quite possibly the most memorable tragic turn in recent fiction so much so that even people who haven't read the books know about it (thanks to that pernicious "X verb'ed Y" meme). The anagnorisis of the titular Half-Blood Prince's identity, in my humble opinion, was the highest point of the entire Potter series. It endeared Rowling's books to me and made me a late but no less enthusiastic participant in the fandom (prior to that, my interest in Harry Potter was pedestrian). The equivalent scene of peripeteia in the film matched my expectation, though it did not exceed it. The anagnorisis, however, fell starkly short. I blame this on the screenwriter. He thought it was okay to cut out all the bits in the book about Hermione's investigations into the man behind the moniker, and it severely undermined the bludgeon of the eventual reveal. The 'I AM THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE' line in the film just failed to raise any goosebumps.

Also, It pains me to say that Alan Rickman wasn't as impressive as I expected him to be this time, but it's probably because Gambon and Broadbent were so damn good.

Snape and Malfoy
Draco Malfoy was handled surprisingly well in this film. I like how this promotional poster paralleled Harry and Dumbledore's one.

The commonest complain I hear about the Harry Potter movies is the non-inclusion of certain plot elements which will later become very important to the overall mytharc. They say that moviegoers with no knowledge of the source material will be baffled by the events in the later films. I fully agree with that, but since I have already read all the books, I would subconsciously insert all the missing details as I watch the movies and will not even notice any gaps in the story at all. Therefore, I watch the Potter films for the characters (and the magic, of course) almost exclusively. Director David Yates did the right thing by me when he chose to invest most heavily in bringing the characters to life. Incidentally, I can finally see why the fans wanted Harry and Hermione to end up together so badly, and Yates really loves rubbing salt in that wound with a wire brush over and over again in Prince. However, as much as I applaud the makers of Half Blood Prince for most of their artistic decisions and directions, I think it's criminal that they did not include a certain funeral at the end of this film. It was not only deserving for the character in question, but it's also quite important to the plot. I fear that they have taken a gun to their own feet.

The cinematography and visual effects in this film is by far the most impressive of the 6 Potter films released so far. If I have any say at all, I'd nominate it for an Oscar in both categories. Harry's ink-in-water visitations into Dumbledore's and Slughorn's memories of a young Voldemort was breathtakingly beautiful in their execution, and so was the concept of Apparition. That scene in which Dumbledore stirs a massive inferno above him in the seaside cave totally made this movie for me. It's easy to forget that you're seeing something extraordinary when you've been exposed to so much of it. Magic has been incrementally relegated to the role of a plot device with each successive Potter film. Half-Blood Prince, I feel, have brought the wonder and magic back into the series. It was promised in Harry's face at the start of the film, when Dumbledore restores a thoroughly wrecked Muggles' house with the merest flick of his wand - and I deem that promise fulfilled.

Dumbledore Inferno
This is the point when my jaw fell right off my skull and rolled down the aisle.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince equals the book it was adapted from. With Yates still at the helm, I am expecting Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the two-parter adaptation of the last book to be superior to its source material in every aspect (though that's not saying a lot since I personally consider Deathly Hallows to be a terrible novel). I truly believe that something incredible can be salvaged from it.

We should be so lucky to get another repeat of the performance we saw in the Half-Blood Prince. Whether you like the Harry Potter series or not, you can't deny that it's one of the most influential monuments of modern literature. Its finale deserves a bang like no other. I like the depth of the darkness of Deathly Hallows to be plumbed completely, as David Yates demonstrably proved he could do in Half Blood Prince. There are moments in Prince which truly scared me. I would very much like to find myself experiencing nightmares after watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, please.

It's a good time to be alive, and a lover of the fantastic.

P.S. Best movie of 2009 so far! Suck it, Transformers.

Dumbledore's man through and through,
k0k s3n w4i


- yuhhui - said...

what happened to your ratings? hehe.. I can't wait to go Mangalore and watch it !!

Betsy said...

I thought I was the only one thinking it beats Transformer hands down. Watching it again anytime this week :D

McGarmott said...

Sorry man, I saw it yesterday and it seemed to operate half the time as a comedy of adolescent romance, and the other half as a mystery that takes too long to reveal itself because the proceedings weren't nearly as intriguing as I expected it to be. And yes, I'm not a Potter reader or fan by any means so I'm just watching it as a sequel film really, and it's adequate but seemed ultimately unmemorable, and I couldn't understand why would people (other than fans) insist that this be nominated for Best Picture, or why people say this is the best one out of the 6 ...

k0k s3n w4i said...

-yuhhui-: I don't see the point of rating it since I only write about movies I really like or really hate :)

Betsy: I'm going to be watching it again with phoebe when she's back

McGarmott: LOL, why do you need to apologise for not liking a movie? Anyhow, I already said on the outset that I am going to very subjectively write about why I like this film so much (being a fan of the book helps, really). And it is SUPPOSE to operate as a comedy of adolescent romance, by the way. It's all in the books really, which is collectively a high school story in essence (only with MAGIC). If it makes you feel any better, I don't think it deserves Best Picture :) But to really see how brilliant a job the actors really did with the characters, you have to know what the characters are like in the books first.

~*caryn*~ said...

i watched it last friday. it was alright for me, yes i loved the inferno in the cave part too. but i was really disappointed that they didn't explain more about the half blood prince. it's the namesake of the movie and a line was all it got! sigh. dumbledore and slughorn were amazing, but i really didn't like the harry-ginny pairing at all.

but i have to say, the little boy and the teenager tom riddle were really good. apparition was alright, but yeah the pensieve was beautiful.

but too bad the action scenes were so little. after *ahem* died i was expecting the battle. all that happened was what, a destroyed hall and a burnt house? sigh.

k0k s3n w4i said...

~*caryn*~: this story is an important prelude to the Half Blood Prince's full tale in the final book, so yeah, I was surprised they did not look into it more. Then again, they didn't look much into Voldemort's backstory either (specifically regarding Merope Gaunt AKA VoldeMom). I would have been happier if Harry ended up with Luna instead. About the missing battle in Hogwarts, I can explain :D Apparently, the director thought that filming the battle in this movie would make the final battle in the last movie seem like a repeat.

~*caryn*~ said...

ahah, i thought harry and luna would make a lovely pair as well :) luna was my favourite in the previous movie, where the harry/cho relationship seemed kinda pathetic :P

yeah... tom riddle's mother and her father. that bit was nice.

- yuhhui - said...

Hehe.. give ratings la.. then desperate for movie people like me can know which movie to go for. I'm dragging everybody to Mangalore after blocks to watch Harry Potter coz of your review !! Hahha!

k0k s3n w4i said...

~*caryn*~: they didn't help matters by casting the ugliest chinese girl possible as cho chang. makes me wonder if there is any cute chinese girl on the british isle at all.

-yuhhui-: fine, it's 12/10. just be warned, i realise that a lot of fans of the book really hate this movie (also, a lot of fans really hate the book as well). and anyone with an IQ below 100 won't be able to follow the story.