Facing unmeasurable odds, the sixth Harry Potter film must lift the baton, after the previous one dropped it in a pile of horse manure.
Still, with the same director at the helm, David Yates, we're beginning to get a sense of continuity in the franchise, as we're slowly moving towards the final showdown.
IT'S THE ONE WHERE...
The darkness is spreading all over the world, and the magic community is in a state of unrest. Dumbledore enlists the help of Harry, to learn more about the Dark Lord, from the teacher who once taught him. Meanwhile Draco Malfoy has a special part to play for the dark side. Harry also finds an old book, with some very valuable notes.
Hermione and Ron finally become an item. Harry smooches yet another girl (this time it's Ron's sister, Ginny). And we lose a dear character.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is so many light-years ahead of the previous film that it's not even funny. Gone are the ridiculous plot-lines, the cartoonish characters, and the ridiculous plot-lines. Wait, I mentioned plot-lines twice, right? Well, they really were that stupid.
This time the fight against the Dark Lord is back in focus, as all the elements are being lined up for the final showdown. Even though the Unmentionable One doesn't actually show up here, his henchmen do a great job of terrorising everybody.
The film starts by slowly establishing that the darkness is seeping out into the real world - out among "regular" people. We hear rumors that attacks are occurring everywhere, and that people are disappearing. When the students arrive at Hogwarts, they face added security measures. Is this just paranoia? No, late at night when everyone is sleeping dark creatures try to penetrate the shield around the school. With a few very simple moves the film quickly creates a surprisingly effective sense of danger and claustrophobia. There's something really sinister at play here. Make no mistake, it's time to get out your wand and choose a side.
The wizards know this, and because the film works so well, so do we.
Despite the darkness, or perhaps because of it, the film takes the time to give us some great moments between our three young wizards. It even gets a little playful here and there.
Even though I'll still call Hermione's sanity into question, I like the way her and Ron's relationship develops. There's not an awful lot of room for Emma Watson and Rupert Grint here, but they make the best of it, especially Watson, who obviously enjoys sinking her teeth into the complicated emotions of her character. The scene where Hermione shares her frustrations with Harry is one of the best in the film. And it's just two people in an empty room! Another great moment comes when the boys are lying restless in bed at night talking about girls. I've said it before and I'll say it again: It's moments like this that makes everything else work. It's during these small scenes we're reminded what the big fight is all about.
Is this a good time to mention a completely unnecessary character that I absolutely love? Luna! She's back! God, she's so freakin' weird. What's the progress on her getting her own movie?
The biggest surprise of the film is Draco Malfoy. Remember him? He's the snotty kid who was supposed to be Harry's archenemy, but ended up being a joke. He's been walking around restlessly on the sidelines for five movies, but this time he finally has a proper part to play in the story.
Actor Tom Felton, whom I've criticized quite a bit, must be thrilled! Perhaps that's why he's been able to take control of his performance. He's turned down the volume and made Malfoy not only tolerable, but actually transformed him into an interesting character. We finally learn that Malfoy is not just a d**k, he's actually in league with the Dark Lord himself. He's become quiet and brooding, and there are hints of bitterness and regret in the performance. He's no longer a buffoon, he's a real threat. I didn't think it was possible to salvage Malfoy, but they've done it!
Alan Rickman's Professor Snape has also been waiting patiently in the wings. He's been in every one of the other films. He hasn't always had too much to do, but sometimes the sight of him lurking silently in the background was enough. With this character Rickman creates his third memorable screen villain (quick, what's the other two?). Though, I'm still not a hundred percent sure he really is a bad guy. Rickman is equally good in ordinary dramas, but he seems to get a special kick out of these villainous characters. That definitely shines through in this film. Snape finally gets to step out of the shadows and take part in the drama. And it's fantastic to watch.
In sharp contrast to Rickman's Snape we find Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. The character could have been reduced to a funny old guy in a hat, but Gambon finds a warmth in the composed headmaster, which I absolutely love. He's mysterious and strange, not because the script needs him to be, but because he cares a great deal for his students, and does everything in his power to protect them. Though I'm sad about the reason Gambon took over the role (original Dumbledore Richard Harris died after the second film, you'll recall) I'm still glad he did.
Perhaps this is a good time to cover director David Yates, who was also responsible for the previous film, The Order of the Phoenix. Before he was drafted to the Potter universe he did the State of Play (2003) miniseries and the TV-movie The Girl in the Café (2005). He's also directing the 7th and 8th Potter films, The Deathly Hallows: Part I & II (2010/2011). Yates is an even more curious choice than Mike Newell, who directed the fourth film. Yates has done absolutely nothing that would make anyone think he could handle anything in these films. Except the actors, of course, and perhaps that's the key. The performances from both Rupert Grint and Emma Watson - which previously have been all over the place - are perfectly in sync with Daniel Radcliffe's Harry, and as I mentioned earlier, even Malfoy now works! Is this Yates' fault? Let's say it is.
It terms of the visuals Yates also seems to have hit his stride. The fifth film had its moments - especially in the finale - but this film is almost pitch perfect. Perhaps he wasn't such a bad choice after all?
The Half-Blood Prince ends with two big set-pieces. First Dumbledore and Harry search a for an important piece of the Dark Lord's past. The sequence begins with two tiny fragile figures entering a vast dark cave. It ends in a sea of fire. The next sequence is the final showdown (I'm keeping this a bit vague to keep the spoilers to a minimum). All major characters, most of them representing the dark side, face off against each other.
I'm so impressed with these scenes. When I hear the words "wizards", "magic", "battle against evil", it's scenes like these that come to mind. They're epic, they're touching, they made me jump out of my seat! There are two films left in the series, and yet I still feared for Harry's life! When a film can pull that off, it's doing something right.
The Half-Blood Prince is an impressive return to form. It doesn't quite beat the third film, but it taps into an emotional ore, none of the other films have reached. Though the plot may seem a bit weak at first - Harry gets a cool magic book (cricket... cricket...) and he attempts to get a teacher to talk about another student (more crickets....) - the whole thing fits beautifully into the overall plot. The screws are effectively tightened throughout the film, ending in a spectacular, heartbreaking finale.
The darkness is no longer "on the way", it's HERE. It brings melancholy and sadness with it. We're close to the end now, we made it, but at what cost? One thing is certain: Harry is no longer an innocent boy. I don't know how the final showdown will play out, but I know this: It won't be quiet and it won't be pretty.
I can't wait.
FINAL FINAL THOUGHTS
And so we've reached the end of this little marathon. Well, not quite. I'll be wrapping up the whole experience in the next blog. Maybe I'll try to say something profound about the world, about society or something. Maybe I'll just be happy that it's over.
I can promise one thing, though: There will be prizes! Do check it out.
Feature running time: 153 minutes
Number of pages in novel: 607
Hermione Hotness Factor: 7/10. She's in a dress again. It's low-cut. I'm a bad person.
The Weasley Twins Creepiness Factor: 4/10
Voldemort-o-meter level: Zero. He's a kid in this one! You could squash him like a bug, or a small animal.
Harry and Dumbledore's secret mission in the dark cave.