At the Movies: “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” – Or, “Harry Potter and the Half-Done Print”

Attention, Muggles and Wizards alike: there be spoilers here…

I was sincerely hoping that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince would reverse my streak of having only seen films that rate from mediocre to abominable in theaters this year, but sadly it was not to be.  The latest adaptation of the Potter saga is underwhelming and curiously middling.  Elements of the production that had been harnessed so effectively before seem to have eluded veteran director David Yates’ grasp this time out, and the result is a shapeless, lifeless film that does nothing to wet my appetite for the impending conclusion.

The main problem was the wandering focus of the narrative.  As typical with Potter works, there is a lot going on, and Prince is no different.  We have the intensifying and now very public campaign of Voldemort’s Death Eaters, the subversive attempts of sage Headmaster Dumbledore to root out the secret to victory, Draco Malfoy’s dramatic inner struggle, and the twisting tendrils of love and lust among the Hogwarts student body.  Unfortunately, Yates and official Potter adapter Steve Kloves fail to make any coherent connections between these various plots, and spend too much time on some at the expense of others.  I didn’t really need ten whole minutes of Hermione whimpering in a stairwell over Ron Weasley.  I would have much rather been given an explanation as to how Harry eludes even the slightest bit of discipline after bloodying Malfoy in the bathroom.

The moments of menace are few and far between, which seems unacceptable given that the story is a clear ramp-up to the final clash between good and evil.  Even the final twenty minutes, which sees happy Hogwarts invaded by a hit squad of Voldemort’s nastiest acolytes, inspires little dread.  For one thing, why didn’t anyone else know what the hell was going on?  There are hundreds of kids at this school and seasoned wizard faculty by the dozens; yet no one seems to notice that Bellatrix LeStrange has just blown up the dining hall.  Really?  Unnoticed and unchallenged, the villains march right up to the highest tower where Dumbledore, in full Obi-Wan Kenobi mode, seems to be willfully awaiting his demise.  Even this act felt empty.

The Potter franchise suffers from the same ailment all great fantasy and science-fiction franchises do: its villains are more interesting than its heroes.  Yet Prince manages to stifle the mystique of its greatest characters.  The flashbacks to Voldemort’s past are uninspiring, helped none by Frank Dillane’s borderline camp portrayal of the teenage malcontent.  Severus Snape, as portrayed by Alan Rickman, has always been a highlight of the franchise, but even in the installment which bears his playground alias (yeah, he’s the titular prince) and witnesses his darkest deed, he fails to intrigue.  Part of that is because there is never any weight or importance given to solving the namesake mystery of the story; when we learn that Snape authored Harry’s latest magical possession, it doesn’t seem to matter at all.

"Read this.  It's instructions for the Gryffindor coffee maker.  I think we could use a little spark, don't you?"
"Read this. It's instructions for the Gryffindor coffee maker. I think we could use a little spark, don't you?"

Yet even with Rickman off his game, he still elicits a bigger response than the three heroes.  This was a tremendous disappointment to me, as the three young actors in the most crucial roles (Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron, and Emma Watson as Hermione) have repeatedly impressed and delighted me in the past.  In Prince, they come off as bland, vacant, and lazy, respectively.  The chemistry they have demonstrated before has completely evaporated this time out.  I could barely believe them as friends, let alone future lovers.  This gang is just past legal age; I expected them to be able to channel some high school angst a bit easier and more believably.

The supporting cast features a few stand-outs.  Bonnie Wright was the most realistic among her peers as Ginny Weasley, while Jessie Cave’s scenery-chewing as lovestruck Lavender Brown grew tiresome (though that may have been the point).  Freddie Stroma was perfectly lecherous as big man on campus Cormac McLaggen, and Tom Felton has grown nicely into the role of Draco Malfoy.    I would have liked it if the film stressed more of the dichotomy between he and Harry: both boy wizards of great potential, both chosen for a daunting task, but surrounded by opposing influences and following diametrically opposed views.  Jim Broadbent was perfect as Horace Slughorn, the professor whose own glory days have long past, and who desperately wants to escape the memory and consequence of his mistakes.  The best of all, though, was Evanna Lynch, returning to the franchise as kooky Luna Lovegood.  She stole–and vastly improved–every scene she was in.

I’m no Potter fanatic, so my expectations for Prince were not terribly high.  I was not looking for a literal translation of Rowling’s original text.  What I was looking for was an enjoyable night at the movies, seeing a piece that functions well on its own but also fits as a crucial part of a long and continuing narrative.  Instead, I saw a movie that seemed disinterested in itself, wanting nothing more than to start that final sprint to the finish line.

For a film set in a world of magic, there was very little of it on screen.

~ T

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