Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dark Times at Hogwarts

In six films, the Harry Potter series has transformed from a wondrous tale of magic and adventure to a depiction of adolescents struggling to persevere in a terrorist state. David Yates's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is still extremely entertaining and at times quite funny, but it exists in an atmosphere of fear. Voldemort's band of Death Eaters are now out in the open, ready to appear at any moment and destroy lives and livelihoods.[bxA]

One of the film's first scenes, depicting an attack on London's Millennium Bridge, opens with a shot of ordinary businessmen in an office, looking out of their skyscraper window. We've seen the Muggle world before in Potter films, but it always held a bit of whimsy, serving as a slightly old-fashioned portal to the realm of magic in which the main story lives. By reminding us of banal, modern times, Yates immediately creates a feeling of disturbance in our everyday routine, a feeling shared by the kids at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

We've seen Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger—along with the actors who play them, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson—grow up over the past six films. And if you thought dealing with teenage love and hormones was difficult, imagine what it must be like when dark magical forces are assaulting your school. Harry's longtime rival, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has been enlisted to perform some sort of mysterious, sinister task for the Death Eaters, and Harry and friends can't quite get to the bottom of it.

In some ways, the teenage love angle feels a bit superfluous in a story with such high stakes. But we've been following these characters for some time, and it's important to remember who they are and where they are in their lives. These are kids, after all, trying to complete the equivalent of their junior year in high school. That they may need to save the world as they know it is a hard pill to swallow.

Jim Broadbent plays the teacher of the year, a potions master named Horace Slughorn who has always had an inclination for befriending—or "collecting," as wise, old headmaster Dumbledore says—the Hogwarts students who are sure to go on to great things. Dumbledore asks Harry to work up a relationship with the nervously bumbling, high-rolling teacher in the hopes that that he might confide in Harry certain key components of the series' over-arching mystery. Not surprisingly, Broadbent is fantastic, bringing both humor and intrigue to the part.

The greatest performance in the film, however, comes from Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. Gambon has been great since he took on the role in "Azkaban" following Richard Harris's death. But this film showcases all his fatherly, mischievous and mysterious traits as he guides Harry through his weighty responsibilities.

As someone who hasn't read past the second Potter book, I'm quite surprised to hear a number of people say that you must already be familiar with the book to understand the movie. Not so. There may be a few moments when the editing of a scene or a transition feels rushed, but this is the most expertly paced Potter film since "The Prisoner of Azkaban," which is an even more impressive feat when you consider the ever-growing size of the books.

Yates, who had previously done low-budget and/or TV work, proved himself immensely capable of a large-scale epic in the previous Potter film. But "Half-Blood Prince" finds the director even more at home at Hogwarts, willing and able to find new ways to shoot its now-familiar walls. We've seen these places before, but Yates looks at them differently in this film.

He creates two astounding set pieces of disorienting danger. One, set in a a wheat field, finds characters running toward a dangerous confrontation. The close-up shots and fast editing punctuate the feeling that we never know where danger will come from. The other, in a Hogwarts bathroom, is equally tight and intense. Making the ominous atmosphere more unsettling, Yates and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel desaturate the colors to the point that everything but red appears nearly black and white. The colors are again stripped out during the film's frightening climax.

Yates would have triumphed simply with these thrilling scenes, but the quiet poignancy, especially in the film's closing moments, makes it a true triumph. No longer the fresh-eyed children gaping with wide eyes at their wondrous surroundings, our heroes are on the cusp of adulthood. As they look toward uncertain futures, they contemplate the past and the familiar surroundings they must leave behind. And just like the film, they see them anew.

No comments: