Potter hits Puberty
Harry and his story on the brink of adulthood in Half-Blood Prince
By Ann Marie Watson
The Hogwarts gang grows up a lot in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth movie in the fantasy franchise. With a true filmmaker’s eye for detail and composition, this might be the most sophisticated Potter movie yet. The film is a tense, taut journey peppered with touching and geniunely funny moments, shrouded in a perpetual (and highly metaphorical) mist of gloomy weather. It’s also possibly the most inscrutable to those who haven’t read J.K. Rowling’s series of books; director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves have necessarily condensed the 650-plus page book, rich in backstory and detail, into a fairly tidy (although long for the little ones) two-and-a-half hours. But the heart of the deeply satisfying story remains for fans and novices alike.
The movie opens with a deadly attack on the Millenium Bridge in London by evil Lord Voldemort’s evil henchmen (and women), the Death Eaters. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is reading about the attack in the paper and awkwardly flirting with a cafe waitress when Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) appears. He uses Harry to finagle Horace Slughorn (the always delightful Jim Broadbent), a dotty and haunted former professor, into returning to Hogwarts. Harry enrolls in his class at the last minute and so must borrow an old textbook, which turns out to be a treasure trove of improved potions and invented spells scribbled in the margins by the book’s original owner, the titular Half-Blood Prince. Before long, Harry is at the top of the class and Slughorn’s prize pupil.
Dumbledore, of course, never does anything by accident, and Harry soon learns that Slughorn once had another favorite student: Tom Riddle, who grew up to become Lord Voldemort. Dumbledore has been collecting memories about Riddle — his youth in a grim orphanage, the realization that he had special powers other children didn’t — but there is one memory belonging to Slughorn he can’t chase down, one which Dumbledore believes is the key to solving the riddle of Riddle and beating Voldemort for good.
Meanwhile, Harry’s nemesis at school, Draco Malfoy (a steely Tom Felton), is on a mysterious mission from Voldemort himself under the protection, sealed by an Unbreakable Vow, of Severus Snape (perfectly cast Alan Rickman). Harry suspects Malfoy is up to no good, but everyone else basically chalks his accusations up to their long-standing feud and nobody believes him.
Amid all this dark stuff is the angst and comic relief of teenage love. Ron (Rupert Grint) finds himself saddled with a girlfriend who calls him “Won-won” and hangs on him like a Christmas ornament. Hermione (Emma Watson), who everyone but Ron can see is falling for Ron, tries to make him jealous with a handsome but obnoxious classmate. Harry can sympathize; he only has eyes for Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright), who is already taken.
There is some snogging (making out, for those who don’t speak British) among the various love triangles, but it is chaste at best and mild at worst. The strongest epithets I heard were “daft dimbo” (apparently dimbo = “dumb bimbo,” I had to look that one up) and a jocular “shut up.” Students drink wine at a party and “butter beer” in a tavern (one character appears tipsy after that scene), and two professors raise a pint and sing drunkenly together.
The movie features some violent and scary moments might not be suitable for younger kids. A chase scene involving a werewolf uses POV filming that puts you uneasily into the action. One student has his face viciously stomped on, while another is slashed across the torso and bleeds heavily. Near the end of the film is a fairly terrifying scene involving an army of, basically, hairless, water-dwelling zombies (Rowling calls them Inferi), the appearance of which made nearly everyone in the audience jump out of their seats. And yes, a major character dies, in a stunning and sad moment.
More than anything, Half-Blood Prince is about the perplexing and thorny transition into adulthood. We’ve watched the actors physically mature on screen over the years, but the characters aren’t kids anymore, either. Dumbledore jokes about Harry needing to shave; Ron and Harry have a laugh at the first-year students who can’t find their way around Hogwarts; the trio goes places that, in the earlier movies, required parental accompaniment. Below the surface, though, the teens — Harry in particular — learn that part of leaving childhood behind is making difficult choices that go against your heart, but which you know in your head are right; choices that can have unintended and devastating consequences, but which you have to trust will ultimately lead you to the right destination. It’s a tough life lesson, even for the adults in the room.
Previews at a screening on July 15 were: G.I. Joe, New Moon, The Lightning Thief, 2012 (which included surprisingly graphic apocalyptic scenes), Sherlock Holmes, Shorts and Where the Wild Things Are.