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Sick of Deathly Hallows hype? Here’s last year’s Harry Potter movie!

November 10, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Yeah, yeah, the new one’s out this month.  But taking a cue from blogenius The Incredible Suit, I’ve decided to revisit the last Harry Potter film (…and the Half-Blood Prince, if you’d forgotten).

By the way, reviews of films 1-5 are available on my old site (“H” index here) including my now-baffling love of The Chamber of Secrets and my wish-I-could-retract-it dismissal of Cuaron’s mighty Prisoner of Azkaban.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
(David Yates, UK, 2009)

The most Potter-esque of the films, largely because we’re in pre-finale consolidation mode. But an increasingly confident Yates makes the most of its minor pleasures

Another year, another Potter – and by the looks of things, the franchise is running out of gimmicks with which to differentiate the latest from what has gone before. It’s easier to define The Half-Blood Prince by what it isn’t. There’s no new director this time, no startling tonal shift, no outré guest star performance: just a refinement of the tried-and-trusted formula.

But then maybe that’s the point. This is Rowling’s penultimate book (even if, with cavalier disregard for the books’ structural rhythm, it isn’t the penultimate film) and it occupies the same place in the ongoing saga as the stopgap/stocktake episode witnessed in countless serial-driven TV series. To be honest, most of the pieces need to set up the big finale fell into place at the end of The Order of the Phoenix – barring one strategically-delayed cliffhanger development that only reinforces this film’s sense of the calm before the storm. So while there’s a lot going on here, but most of it is peripheral stuff: loose ends and character arcs to attend to that will most likely be overlooked in the battles ahead. It’s noticeable that, after five films where the constant threat was of Voldemort’s reappearance, he’s not even in this one barring the odd subliminal flash.

Often such telly shows use this berth as the slot for experimentation, but we’ve already had the playful toe-dipping into other genres with The Goblet of Fire’s teenage rom-com and The Order of the Phoenix’s political satire. Instead, the gambit here is a ‘best of’ approach – the Harry Potter film as… well, as Harry Potter film – and though it’s no less enjoyable for that, it’s likely to lack re-watch value compared to its immediate predecessors. Even one of the series’ strengths – the foregrounding of the new teacher – is achieved here with such nonchalant ease that it feels as if Jim Broadbent’s bumbling uncle routine has always been part of the Hogwarts furniture. Compared to the unsettling, hysterical razzle-dazzle of Imelda Staunton’s presence last time, it’s a little bit safe.

Nor is this film, particularly, an action-packed blockbuster, with its key action sequences – the opening assault on the Muggles’ world, and a frantic, fearful chase through fields – seemingly invented for the film. Largely, the narrative sticks to the talking heads of the book, one long info-dump of pre-emptive exposition for the final film(s) and plenty of lovingly sketched character detail. The romantic comedy that made Mike Newell’s The Goblet of Fire so fresh is back with a vengeance, often to the point where the supposed menace gets ignored… but it’s that Dunkirk spirit, innit? These kids know that their days are numbered, so they want to cop off as often as possible. The result is surprisingly charming and funny, not to mention a testament to the producers’ trust in the ‘kids’ – although, of course, they’re old pros now – that the students can carry much more of the story than before. Broadbent and Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore aside, the adults get little more than cameos, a rapidly-revolving door that lets in some of Britain’s finest actors (Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, even Hogwarts stalwart Maggie Smith) only to throw them straight back out.

A failure, then? Only of nerve – and even that conclusion is tempered by the palpable relish of David Yates’ direction. Presumably kept on as a safe pair of hands to guide things to completion, he’s actually anything but. Yates (in only his second feature film, remember) is clearly taking the opportunity to tease with the medium’s texture while he can, and visually this is arguably the richest Potter yet, its gorgeously Gothic cinematography from Jeunet’s fantasist-in-crime Bruno Delbonnel enhanced by succinct, playful transitions. This might be a long film, but at least Yates ensures it isn’t long-winded.

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