Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Dir. David Yates. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint

What Half-Blood Prince has in bunches, as much as any Potter movie with the possible exception of Goblet of Fire, is humor. If this is one of the Potter movies you cape for, then how funny it can be has to play a significant role. There’s some good Luna (Evanna Lynch) content here; her star really shines in its ethereal, dorky way in Half-Blood Prince, from physical humor to the charming wispiness of her voice. She wears shoes to bed because she sleepwalks. She tells Harry that he looks “exceptionally ordinary” after she fixes his broken nose, although the real zinger in that little scene is about the very limited differences between toes and noses. Emma Watson doesn’t get a lot of chances to be funny in these movies, but they throw a couple of bones in her direction. There’s her disastrous date with Cormac McLaggen (Freddie Stroma) at a party, for one thing, which puts Hermione, for once, on the wrong foot. “Will you stop eating!” she scolds Ron during the feast; the line about having the emotional range of a teaspoon is better, and if spoken differently probably funnier, but in this picture she can make Hermione’s frustration a little softer. Speaking of Ron, it is a joy to get Rupert Grint’s wonderful line readings back in this movie, as it feels like it’s been ages since we’ve seen him at work. There is an awful lot for him to do at that, featuring a nice little setpiece where Ron houses a love potion intended for Harry and Grint gamely does his best to appear lovesick and confounded. Ron senses something going on between Harry (Radcliffe) and Ginny (Bonnie Wright), and thus finds ways to literally insert himself between them. Rupert Grint is a normal-sized human being, but slipping himself between Radcliffe and Wright, who both top out around 5’5″, makes this all the more amusing. He also gets the line that must have gotten the biggest laugh in theaters. (I feel like I should be able to report on this myself; I was there opening night, but I was like, sort of not at the same time. I had my wisdom teeth out that morning.)

McGonagall: Why is it, whenever something happens, it is always you three?

Ron: Believe me, Professor, I’ve been asking myself the same question for six years.

The Potter movies are pretty clean, but it’s hard not to watch Harry’s adventures under the influence of Felix Felicis as anything other than a magical drug trip. They are delightful. When this movie came out, it had been almost ten years since Daniel Radcliffe had auditioned to play Harry. How could they have known what kind of actor he would turn into, much less how he would grow up? Surely they never guessed he’d be that short, or that he’d be just okay at playing out sadness or distress or trauma, or, as it turned out, that he would be such a flexible comedic actor. Radcliffe is at his best in this chapter of the film, bopping pleasantly around the grounds and running into all kinds of people. Slughorn (Jim Broadbent, the last great Leigh collaborator they snared) sees Harry out and about after hours and whispers out his name: “Harry!” Harry turns around, and in an identical stage whisper replies, “Sir!” The funniest part of the series is Radcliffe’s interpretation of Aragog’s corpse. “Not to mention the pincers,” he says casually, wiggling his fingers and clacking. It is so unexpected and so GIFable that it is just screamingly funny; that little reaction is an honest to goodness high point of the entire series.

Sadly, it’s quite possible that as a whole, Half-Blood Prince is the low point of the entire series. For a movie which hinges so much on Potions, it’s incredible how little chemistry (ZING) these people have with one another. Grint and Watson have spent enough time together in front of us that we can believe their characters will end up together, which is something. We’ve also gotten some nice previews of the rockiness in the Heron ‘ship in other movies, where the two of them are actively repressing the feelings they have for one another. Another one of those series high points is in Goblet of Fire in the aftermath of the Yule Ball, where Hermione lets Ron have it about not asking her to the dance. In this movie, Hermione goes late Hitchcock on Ron when the magnets in his mouth find the magnets in Lavender Brown’s (Jessie Cave), firing a battalion of birdies at him after a successful Quidditch match. Some of that good humor sneaks in there when Ron and Harry discuss the merits of Hermione’s skin, which in psychiatric circles is referred to as the “full Buffalo Bill.” The sexual tension between Ron and Hermione is one of the serious subplots of Half-Blood Prince the novel, just as Harry’s accelerating interest in Ginny is such a subplot. I don’t even think it’s wrong, necessarily, that this picture spends so much time on the love affairs of these teens sporting evergreen horniness. I do think that watching Daniel Radcliffe and Bonnie Wright kiss is the most awkward thing I’ve watched this year, and I literally teach high school. Those two just…don’t work together. It’s like sugar and spaghetti. I averted my eyes and made a yucky noise when those two kissed, because it looks like the two of them had never actually heard of the concept before they went for it. This must be what it’s like when cops make out. (Radcliffe who, like Van Horn from Tootsie, eventually kisses everyone, is better in Deathly Hallows – Part 1, but Emma Watson was definitely doing more work.) Half-Blood Prince puts a lot of its M&Ms in the pot for this bet that romance can carry the day, and it definitely does not get those M&Ms back. Even this would not necessarily be a failure, as uncomfortable as it is to watch, if the mid-movie moments were at the heart of the end of the movie as well. As we all know, that isn’t the case at all.

There are three strands in Half-Blood Prince that have to be managed. There’s the “Does (insert teenager here) fuck?” strand. There’s the plot concerning the identity of the Half-Blood Prince, and Harry’s increasing openness to the mysterious, not entirely ethical writer. And there’s the plot where Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) lets Harry in on a monstrous, sensational prediction: Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is using Horcruxes, a technique which allows a wizard to split his soul into pieces so that he can stave off death, and that only by destroying the Horcruxes can Voldemort truly be killed. This is the most important thread: we know because the movie’s climactic moments take place at a secret location where Dumbledore weakens himself significantly so he and Harry can make off with a Horcrux, and then mere minutes later is killed by Snape (Alan Rickman). Even if the series’ plot turns on Voldemort’s rebirth (and even if Harry’s pursuit of Snape at the end of this movie is somehow even more disappointing than the graveyard showdown two movies prior), it’s Dumbledore’s death which is the true emotional redshift. Thus, we have an issue in this movie: so much of it is devoted to whether or not Harry will whip out his wand with Ginny that we lose time for the story’s most important relationship, the one between Harry and Dumbledore.

Some of Yates’ best work in the series is here towards the end of this movie, using starker contrasts in the cave than we ever had in the Department of Mysteries, plainly depicting good versus evil even if evil is not there to represent itself physically. The scene on top of the tower is also a success, taken in many shots from Harry’s point of view and thus obscuring some of our vision in this crucial moment. In the end I respect the choice not to get into Bob Ogden, the Gaunts, Hepzibah Smith, and so on; these are the lovely details that books can indulge in that movies largely cannot, and even if it simplifies Voldemort it does not seriously cheapen the character. What happens instead, though, is that we miss out on more Dumbledore. Half-Blood Prince is Gambon’s best performance as the loony, doomed old warlock, and that’s because it’s the one with the most for him to do. No ironic time-traveling around Hogwarts, no plot exposition from beyond the grave, no “HARRYDIDJOOPUYERNAMEINNAGOBBETOFYAH.” It gives Gambon, who in hindsight never really was the right choice for this part, some space to get more personal and less gimmicky. There’s a man in those conversations with Harry as opposed to a bearded oracle, even though he’s doing much the same work as before. And he also plays his part well in the cave—a marked visual improvement, incidentally, over the Ministry of Magic—which sells Dumbledore for the first time in the movies as a potentially weak figure. The movie we have chooses teenage angst over something which, even in these short bursts, is significantly more effective. I can’t help wondering if this movie might not have been more interesting, and significantly more unified, if it hadn’t chosen a little more touch my body.

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