Thursday, July 30, 2009
Devil May Care
You know the stakes are high for Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) in his sixth year at Hogwarts when headmaster Dumbeldore (Michael Gambon) appears within five minutes of The Half-Blood Prince. Indeed the film opens with a shot of Death-Eaters running foul in London and a cloud formation briefly manifests the dark lord Voldermort. Harry is initially also found in the Muggle world enjoying the twin delights of nightly coffee and picking up a potential date. The escapism is touching but also acts as a catalyst for what is to come. For what marks the transformative relevance of The Half-Blood Prince is the juxtaposition of the threat on Potter’s life to our own as Muggles. By the end of Order of the Phoenix, Voldermort had shed any reservation of taking out anyone who dares stand in his way. His then brief clash with Dumbledore was merely buying for time. Now his minions are forcing an all-out attack and that includes randomly terrorizing humans.
With the Ministry of Magic being slowly overrun, Dumbledore realizes that his options have tightened considerably and sets out to amass all he needs to thwart Voldermort for the last time. That includes, of course, Potter but the scope of Dumbledore’s thinking is finally laid out. He carries Harry along to convince an old friend, Prof. Slughorn (the ever excellent Jim Broadbent) to return to Hogwarts. Both men know the real reason behind the request is not merely to resume teaching potions yet Slughorn agrees. Harry is in awe watching the two wizards as they display magic before him, not realizing the role he will later play. Dumbledore wants a particular memory from Slughorn, one that he feels will help to destroy Voldermort. Dumbledore’s manner here is increasingly human. In many ways, The Half-Blood Prince is the first real examination of him. The previous films have maintained an invincible yet distant aura about him but here we see the ineffability of his role. His scholarly pitch is effective to convey thought yet it bends more tenderly the more it centers on Harry. It is the best Gambon performance of the series so far because the duality involved has never had so much impetus behind it.
But if Dumbledore represents all that is good about wizardry then he also knows that tactics have to be dire in perilous times. He dangles Potter in front of Slughorn like a prize to be had while impressing upon Harry the importance of ‘allowing’ Slughorn to win his confidence over so as to collect the memory. He goes as far as to show Harry the tampered memory through the Pensieve. Here the general aloofness of Dumbledore plays well against the request. There is something almost homoerotic in which Harry is to befriend Slughorn that is never stated yet it hangs in the air thickly. Broadbent’s exquisite performance lends credence to this idea as Slughorn is atypically vain, romantically attached to his students’ achievements and clearly a man hungry for attention. The flashbacks of him and Tom Riddle (the young Voldermort played efficiently by Frank Dillane) show how the latter played on Slughorn’s self-importance to elicit information. Of course, being a film for the PG-13 audience, The Half-Blood Prince makes this impression then relents even though screenwriter Steve Kloves is able to fire off some potent stuff. More salacious is the memory of Dumbledore’s initial meeting with Voldermort at the orphanage where he grew up. The young lad becomes only excited when Dumbledore sets his a part of his room on fire. There is a scary yet impressionable glint in his cold eyes. I think there’s something in your wardrobe that’s trying to get out, Tom, states the elder wizard in reference to things Riddle has stolen. I can speak to snakes, they tell me things about people, Riddle shoots back and the headmaster cannot hide his shock. One sense a vague homoerotic reference between the two or at least the beginning of a power struggle for supremacy or even both entwined in messiness that the film does not resolve.
Kloves works just as hard at character development of others except the villains. Voldermort is only present in flashbacks and memories. Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) remains painfully enigmatic as is Snape (another delicious Alan Rickman one-tone performance). The film’s main antagonist is Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) but the progression from student rebel to budding Death Eater is not sufficiently presented. He remains the film’s weakest link because his family ties to the dark lord are never brought up for a proper examination. Which is odd because The Half-Blood Prince promised to be redemptive for the character, a kind of temptation-based trial to be overcome or overrun by. It is only towards the end, where the irreversible damage is done, do we see Malfoy’s doubts about the path that was chosen for him. We can surmise his loneliness but never truly feel it as how we can feel the twitches of adolescent love emerging from Harry, Hermione (Emma Thompson) and Ron (Rupert Grint). Here the film succeeds in showing the youthful romantic interest and the adult recognition of it. In one scene, Harry and Ginny (Bonnie Wright) find themselves staring at each other in the Weasely household. Arthur Weasely watches them then quickly leaves and they are alone for a few seconds before Ron comes crashing between them uneasily. Ron is himself battling to define the extent of interest in Hermione. He becomes a hero in Quidditch thus girl-bait and one in particular sets out to claim him with a zeal that irks Hermione.
At over 150 minutes though, director Davis Yates is yet again criminally overusing elements that needed to be scaled back. Ron’s lovesick portions end up annoyingly cutting into his time as emerging finally from Harry’s shadow. We see Malfoy repeating the same (dis)appearance trick without realizing the implications beforehand. Bellatrix taunts the Weaselys without any real reason while repeating lines from the last film. Of the three only Malfoy arrives at some epiphany that has repercussions and even then that is swallowed up by the final thirty minutes. The film takes on new life at that point when Dumbledore discovers Slughorn’s secret memory of passing on information to Tom Riddle about horcruxes, dark magic that allows wizards to store parts of their soul into objects. In such a state the wizard would never die unless the horcruxes be destroyed. Dumbledore and Harry set off to destroy a potential horcrux yet both are nearly vanquished by the effort. In his greatest scene, Gambon flips from authoritative to pleading as draughts of poison must be consumed by him to get the cursed amulet. It maddens him but he helps Harry escape from the Inferni, guardians of the cave where the amulet was hidden. They Apparate back to Hogwarts where separate fates await them in the form of Snape.
What happens next yet again proves how Dumbledore’s calculations prevail overtime but still sting in the short-term. Hogwarts becomes vanquished as there is a glorious shot of Bellatrix in all her mad-cap glory eliminating the light from the dining hall while Malfoy sobs openly. The damage is done but the gamble played by Dumbledore is threatened to be for naught if Harry’s fury cannot be abated. Taken into the headmaster’s confidences only to be deserted yet again, he reacts by violently attacking Malfoy, using Snape’s own curses against him and, ultimately, questioning Dumbledore himself. It is the crux of The Half-Blood Prince; the point where the student questions the master. No one has the nerve to answer him except Lupin, who quips the film’s most telling line. ‘Dumbledore trusts Snape, therefore so do I… it all comes down to a question of judgment.’ Judgment indeed and one that must be repeated several times to be believed.