(Film review originally written on July 17, 2009.)
I never wanted to like the Harry Potter books. I was basically conned into reading them by some well-meaning friends against my will. By “conned” I mean they got me to promise to read the first one, and well … that about did it. I didn’t actually allow myself to admit I liked them until I was halfway through the third book (Prisoner of Azkaban), but then it became clear that J.K. Rowling was really one of those rare good modern day writers. As someone who admittedly loves to read, it’s amazing how hard it is to find contemporary authors who produce quality literature. Sure, I’m prejudiced … but I sometimes feel as if I could count the really talented modern day authors all on the fingers of one hand. Rowling would probably belong in this small select group.
It was almost the same with the movies. The first two movies are alright, nothing special, but there is something that changes during the third one. As Harry and his friends are getting older, they are being forced to grow up. In fact, Harry in particular, has to stop being that wussy little kid that everyone hates and learn how to grow up and become a man sooner than later. The fact that a very powerful dark wizard, who is also rising up to take over the world, happens to be the murderer of Harry’s parents helps, but just because Harry can hate and want revenge does not make him likable. I had no reason to root for or even really care about Harry Potter for quite a while, even though I was enjoying the story. In Prisoner of Azkaban, suddenly you have the character of Sirius Black teaching Harry by his own example that there has to be something more than revenge.
Taking all this into account, The Half-Blood Prince is the best of the six Harry Potter movies so far because it gives most of the main characters the opportunity to finally stretch their acting ability. This is the most acting that a Harry Potter movie has had yet (and this is even without Ralph Fiennes, Gary Oldman, Kenneth Branagh or Emma Thompson around).
Helena Bonham Carter - ok, we all knew she was perfect casting for the role as soon as she walked on the screen. But in this film, she chews up every scene she’s in. Giggling and laughing her way through, is it just me, or is she really enjoying this part? I can’t think of anyone besides Tim Burton’s Shakespearean trained wife who could quite make Bellatrix into the same fun-loving evil b**** that she has now become in the films.
Daniel Radcliffe - I’m not sure if it was my dislike for Harry’s character that made me dislike Radcliffe, or if my dislike for Radcliffe made me dislike Harry even more. I always thought, even as the main character of the series, that he was the most one-dimensional actor cast in the films - only capable of registering one of three facial expressions - blank stare, complete surprise, or self-satisfied smirk. He did start showing signs of more acting ability in The Order of Phoenix (fighting off Voldemort’s control with the help of Snape and Dumbledore). But, in the Half-Blood Prince, it looks like Radcliffe is finally growing up and stretching out his acting ability, which should only be natural with the older talent he’s surrounded with (Michael Gambon in particular). If Felton’s got the inner turmoil thing down, this is the first film where I’ve found Radcliffe’s inner turmoil act at all believable. He does actually seem to care about his friends this time (and looks to be just barely suppressing his amusement whenever around the interaction between Ron and Hermione). An important emotional scene towards the end with Harry and Dumbledore is made all the more believable thanks to Radcliffe. Let’s hope he keeps this up.
A number of movie critics kept complaining how awkward Harry’s new found love-interest with Ron’s little sister was on the screen - But I didn’t find it so (except when it was supposed to be, and then it was meant to be funny). I personally found this new Harry & Ginny element to the film to be another reason to like Harry. He’s found the right girl. She’s the angel that he needed - not in the sense that she’s perfect, but in the sense that suddenly, Harry has another reason to fight the evil that is within himself. His past crushes didn't give that to him. She does. And Ginny formally begins their romance by encouraging Harry to resist a temptation to give in to a part of himself that most of the rest of his friends wouldn’t blame him for. And she actively does this, but I’m not sure if it’s a spoiler, so I won’t say how. Every guy should find a girl like that - giving him a reason to build up the better parts of his own character like mercy, kindness and the utter refusal to become the same as his enemies.
Rupert Grint - speaking of the Weasleys, Grint is also giving us more character development for Ron than we've been given before. Harry's best friend is growing up to become a man too, and so his self-confidence has grown and we get to see it strengthen during the film. Ron is now the school football star (I mean quidditch star or whatever they call it), and he now has a girlfriend (not Hermione) who is unwittingly helping him figure out what he really does want in a girl. But Grint, who has been solid as Ron in the films so far, now invests Ron’s character with equal mixtures of fun and comic relief. Every scene with Grint is now a reason to smile. Emma Watson has been one of the best child actors from the beginning of the series, and now that Grint’s acting talent is strengthening, their interaction together is becoming more meaningful.
Alan Rickman - Whether Rowling even intended it or not, the role of Professor Snape was made for Alan Rickman. As perfect as some of the casting in the films has been, there has not been a single more dead-on portrayal of a character in Harry Potter than Rickman’s performance as Professor Snape. He’s been stealing every scene he’s been in starting from the very first movie, and not only does this not end with The Half-Blood Prince, it gets better. Anyone who’s read the books knows how important Snape is to this part of the series (an understatement), and for the first time, the story gives Rickman something more to do than just pure comedic sarcasm. On one side or the other (or both), Snape suddenly finds himself having to do things that he doesn’t want to do. And with Rickman, it shows, but only just barely like it ought to. There’s not a film critic out there who can resist giving Rickman credit. For being the most cool, collected, logical, unemotional, and sarcasm filled character in the story, Rickman invests more emotion and feeling into his voice while uttering two little words “Avada Kedavra” than I even imagined while reading the book. Alan Rickman is why we love films based on the good books - rarely are we really given more than we were even able to imagine by ourselves.
Michael Gambon - gets the final and best recommendation for his acting in the Half-Blood Prince as Professor Dumbledore. I’m not with all the movie critics who are currently blathering about how much better Gambon is as Dumbledore than Richard Harris. Harris rocked at every part he ever played. He was a perfect Dumbledore, and I’m not one to claim that he couldn’t have done what Gambon has now done with the role. But Michael Gambon has also grown into playing the perfect Dumbledore as well. This is what good acting does - the actors make you forget who they are and think only of the character they’ve become.
Gambon shows us Dumbledore at his best and at his worst. He is both the most powerful good existing wizard who seems to be almost single-handedly holding evil at bay, and he is also inherently vulnerable. The very fact that he is around gives everyone the hope they need against the impossible odds they are facing. He is their rock. He reminds me, as Merlin and Gandalf did, sort of how Old Testament prophets must have been in their day to the people in the nation of Israel. Wise and kind, powerful and vulnerable, seemingly indestructible and yet still searching for answers - Gambon fills his performance with all this and more. He makes you feel safe, and you wish you could know him.
In The Half-Blood Prince, there are, of course, a few incredibly important and shattering scenes at the end - and it’s Michael Gambon who makes all of them work. Exactly how much Dumbledore can really be trusted is the question at the end of this film. Gambon's performance gives exactly what we needed in order to seriously consider this question.
"Harry Potter's magic sometimes seems to be more about natural ability than supernatural interference. (Think X-Men.) When Dumbledore meets Voldemort as a child, for instance, we learn that Voldemort could simply 'do' things like move objects around with his mind and talk with snakes."
No, really? It’s pretty amazing but he finally got it. Just cross out “sometimes seems to be” and replace it with “IS ALWAYS” and you’ve finally accurately described the use of magic in the story. In Rowling’s fictional fantasy world, magic is a natural power that characters possess that can be used for good or for evil - just like any other power. The use of magic in the Harry Potter stories is NOT calling up demons to do things for you.
Precisely. Sounds like a normal society formed by social compact like it's supposed to be. Although it didn’t take everyone else until the sixth story in the series to figure this out. But, to be fair, I haven’t looked to see if Asay has been exposed to the first five.
"But that doesn't, um, magically solve the problem. The darker ideas of potions, incantations, spells, etc., are never far away from these stories. Students, professors and Death Eaters fire their wands like six-shooters and shout out spells like schoolyard taunts. Students sniff love potions, snack on enchanted candy and brew elixirs of death. Professors pull memories from pupils minds with the tips of their wands and turn themselves into purple easy chairs."
Asay - "Thus, magic is ever-present and, sometimes, dangerously evil …"
Professor Snape: “Obviously ...”
"But, clearly, this isn't a straight-up good-vs.-evil tale of heroism and conquest. While it's true, as the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano reports, 'The spastic search for immortality epitomized by Voldemort is stigmatized,' Harry and Co. routinely use sorcery to defeat sorcerers. And that fact muddies the waters."
"Life, meanwhile, in Harry Potter's world, is a precious, even sacred, commodity. Voldemort, we learn, split his soul into seven pieces, hiding them in various objects — a dark, magical process that required Voldemort to murder multiple times. This is deemed most definitely wrong. According to one professor, 'Killing rips the soul apart.' The suggestion is that this sin, at least, leads to a sort of damnation."
So, in summary: "Well, in the Harry Potter film, I will admit that murder is considered to be wrong. So I guess it’s not all bad."
Read Asay's review in it's entirety here - PluggedIn Review of The Half-Blood Prince
The Half-Blood Prince is essentially a story about love and self-sacrifice. Without giving away any spoilers, there are two main characters who both make tremendous sacrifices in this film. Both of these sacrifices are far more hard to do than just getting killed in a battle fighting for the right side. It may even take you reading the last book, or seeing the very last film, to completely understand who is doing what in The Half-Blood Prince , but that is how Rowling intended it. You are going to remember what they did here when the finale comes around.
Lastly, there has been (and usually always is in popular fantasy stories) much discussion about the conflict between good and evil in the Harry Potter series. Christians like this because the position that good and evil are real is a fundamental part of Orthodox Christianity. But within the discussion about the conflict of good and evil, another through struck me. The Half-Blood Prince doesn’t just set up the conflict (heck, films like Mortal Kombat or Sin City can do that). The Half-Blood Prince makes you value genuine plain ol’ goodness. Goodness is a character trait that is to be treasured, both in ourselves and in our friends. There is something comforting about goodness. The reason we love Dumbledore is because he is good. The reason the Weasley family, and most of the Hogwarts professors, are characters that you care so much about is because they are good. Again, there is something comforting about goodness - it feels safe, like home, like sitting next to a crackling fire during a storm, like sharing a drink with close and beloved friends - it's like a shelter. And being good doesn’t mean that you are inherently good in your nature - no, it means that you actively choose that which is good (and this is also evident in the Harry Potter series).