Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince

Director    David Yates
Starring    Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent
Release    15 JUL (US) 15 JUL (UK)    Certificate 12A
3 stars


4th July 2009

First, an admission: I've not read the Harry Potter books. Go ahead: take me out back and shoot me. I've seen the films and enjoyed them as passing distractions, but never felt obliged to comment, given that they're so clearly aimed at the hardcore fans - trying to review them would be like pretending to support a football team I don't follow. However, we're now six films into a gigantic franchise that's engulfed the entirety of the British film industry, so perhaps it's time to give Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince its dues. Just don't hunt me down and kill me if you disagree with me; I'm still fighting off Twilight nerds.

Finding your feet in the Potterverse is tricky; not so much being thrown in at the deep end rather than being dropped in the middle of the ocean. It's fairly obvious that JK Rowling's books are teeming with detail and intricate plots, sub-plots and sub-sub-plots, not all of which can be squeezed into the movies. It's a definite damned-if-you-do situation - cram in every last sentence and risk rupturing your audience's collective bladders; skip the non-essential stuff and risk being stabbed to death by an irate, overweight, thirtysomething male dressed in a wizard's robe and pointy hat. Lose-lose.

Subsequently, Half-Blood Prince suffers from the same problems as previous Potter movies - there's too much going on but it still feels a little hollow. There's much to be enjoyed, certainly, but it requires an iron will to stick it out 'til the end.

The first hour is an energy-sapping experience to say the least. After a tame Death Eater attack on the Millennium Bridge (the newspaper reports suggests a large death toll, despite the fact there's no one on it at the time), the movie slows to a crawl, attempting to wring humour out of the dull romantic misunderstandings between Hogwarts pupils. Harry loves Ginny; Ron loves Hermione; Dumbledore loves Harry (I hope I'm not the only one who detected a creepy 'priest and choir boy' vibe in their relationship). It's like an episode of Hollyoaks, but with magic. You could slice 20 minutes from the front section - Quidditch match included - and no one, save for the aforementioned fat virgin, would give a toss.

Things really pick up once the story proper is jolted into life by the appearance of a 16 year-old Tom Riddle aka Voldemort Jr, the very presence of whom gives Half-Blood Prince a real surge of spookiness. Though this event comes some 90 minutes into the film, it kicks off a series of quite excellent set-pieces, the stand-outs being a freakish possession scene and Harry and Dumbledore's visit to a dark and dingy cave in search of a Horcrux-shaped plot device. It's creepy as all Hell, but always in keeping with the 'must be darker' mantra of the franchise, which pushes that 12A rating with every new instalment - one swift boot to the face brought actual gasps to the young audience I was part of.

The Death Eaters bring genuine menace when on-screen (Helena Bonham-Carter is brilliant again as Bellatrix Lestrange) and their movement when airborne, like black ink in water, is really quite fascinating. You'll wish the whole movie were made up of scenes like these; director David Yates adequately brings Rowling's imaginative set-pieces to life, but you can't help but wonder what Alfonso Cuaron - or even someone like Guillermo Del Toro - could have done with the same material.

The young cast are something of a thorn in the movie's side - it's easy to forget how unexperienced they are: all they know is Potter. Daniel Radcliffe, seemingly destined to be the Mark Hamill of the franchise, has a pretty thankless role as the boy who lived. Considering he's the chosen one, he seems to float around a lot, moving from scene to scene with no real direction - at one point, Dumbledore even demands he "do as I say without question", hardly the stuff real heroes are made of. The few brief occasions when Harry shows self-confidence ("But I am the chosen one!") are Radcliffe's better moments.

Emma Watson has less to work with as Hermione, save for looking hot in a ballgown (a big bowl of wrong). She'd be more tolerable if she didn't always sport a mortified scowl throughout - it's her 'Blue Steel'. Bizarrely, this leaves sun-avoider Rupert Grint as the highlight of the three leads, soaking up the frequent comic relief scenes with surprising ease, his Ron being less gormless and more charming than expected.

(A brief note about Hogwarts also-ran Luna Lovegood, played by Evanna Lynch: her lines are clunky and her screen-time is minimal, but her delivery is utterly fantastic. At one point, she appears out of nowhere wearing a giant lion's head for no apparent reason, and she talks like she's completely out of her gourd at all times. More of her, please.)

Not being familiar with Rowling's books, it's hard to tell whether the flat script is her doing, but Half-Blood Prince's non-physical gags rarely land - one early scene sees Watson fake laughing for a good 20 seconds after a lame joke about Dumbledore's age. Elsewhere, the timing's a little off - too often the cast aim for 'dramatic pause' but the result is more 'fart in the wind'.

What's more, Half-Blood Prince contains a number of plot-points that are destined to be lost on a muggle like me - either that or Rowling just can't write very good drama. Too often, the movie uses 'magic' as an excuse to get out of the corner it's painted itself into - once you've established anything can happen in this universe, very little is left to mystery. Example: Ron accidentally chokes after ingesting poison. Harry rustles around in a drawer, jams something into his mouth and saves him. "Thank goodness you used the hoojamaflip," intones Dumbledore. Thank goodness indeed. And that's it. Crisis over.

Harry's relationship with magic reminds me of Bond's relationship with Q: "Pay attention, Agent Potter - you may need to use this spell to get you out of a tricky situation in act four." I'm sure there are hidden depths than an intimate knowledge of the books would reveal, but hey - not all of us can read. It's a dark movie in every respect - maybe a crash course in Potter literature would colour them a little more.

Unlike films four and five, though, Half-Blood Prince at least feels like it's building to something big. The absence of Voldemort is keenly felt, but the climax - which you'll have done well to avoid having spoiled - sets up what's sure to be a corker of a last episode (or two episodes, given Deathly Hallows will be split into two movies). When you've accustomed yourself to Rowling's roundabout prose and sifted through the seemingly endless scenes of tiresome teenage woe, the core Potter story is indeed a gripping one. At least it's more than a lame analogy for abstinence.

If you're a fan, you're sure to find something to grumble about; ditto if you're a critic; but for the dwindling amount of people who just want to go to the movies to watch a fun and interesting movie, you could do a lot worse than Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince. And that, my friends, is what you call a 1,200 word cop-out.

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