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Friday, July 17, 2009

Summer flick VII: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Verdict: The most introspective of all the Harry Potter films manages to be the most compelling.

Let me preface my review by stating that I am a huge Harry Potter buff and I love everything about the books. I also appreciate the meaning of the term 'movie adaptation' and am prepared to cut the films slack if they do enough justice to the amazing series from whence they emerged.

'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince' is perhaps one of the more difficult films to critique because it takes huge risks and is completely different from all five flicks that have gone before. If I had to choose one word to describe this film, it would be 'beautiful' - in this instance, it means beautifully nuanced, beautifully shot and a story beautifully told. And that is a word that has not struck me with vigor since I saw the opening of 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' all those years ago. The film attempts a tightrope walk between light and dark tones and just about manages to pull it off. The story deals with Harry's (Daniel Radcliffe) sixth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as he discovers an old book belonging to someone called 'the Half-Blood Prince' and begins to learn about the secrets of Lord Voldemort's dark past. While the Dark Lord's death eaters threaten the world around them, the trio must also deal with raging hormones that thrusts their friendship into murky waters.

Though a Harry Potter book purist, I have learnt to see the novels and the films as separate entities that need to stand on their own. Liberties are bound to be taken when translating from one medium to another. The choices made by director David Yates ('Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix') and screenwriter Steve Kloves are honest, bold and for the most part display a brand of storytelling that is unique to the series.

I had to see 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince' twice to properly grasp the various layers that have been interwoven into the narrative and internalize what worked for it. For one thing, Bruno Delbonnel's ('Amélie', 'Across the Universe') cinematography is some of the best work I've seen in a long time and definitely the finest this franchise has seen. For another, every actor delivers a performance that is captivating even if he or she appears only for a few scenes. Radcliffe blew me away with his comic timing (he is exquisite in the scene showing the effects of the luck potion), which was miles ahead of the others. Rupert Grint gets more screen time and dominates much of the quidditch scenes and romantic entanglements in the movie. Emma Watson holds her own as she always does and plays well off both Radcliffe and Grint. Michael Gambon shows us the Dumbledore that we are meant to know and Alan Rickman continues to confound as the enigmatic Professor Snape.

A special mention has to be made of Jim Broadbent as Professor Slughorn, the new Potions master. He is able to make the audience empathise with the character in a realistic way, which was not quite possible when seeing him on the page. His narration of a story about Harry's mother is an inspired addition that clicks wonderfully on-screen. Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy also does some of his best work, which adds more dimensions to his character. And that brings me to the narrative flow of the movie - it has taken six entries to do it but it looks like the filmmakers have settled on the right formula. The soft romance angle is interspersed with Malfoy's dark mission, deadly threats that seem very real and light being shed on Voldemort's secrets - what's surprising is that the elements blend seamlessly in the narrative.

While it might appear that there is not much wrong with 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince', the shortcomings present are very noticeable. The funeral of a certain lead character, in my mind, was crucial to tie off the end of the story. Having said that, the concluding scene put forward by Yates does bring quite a lot of closure in the context of the movie. A fault that cannot be ignored is Kloves's tendency to hand one character's lines to another - this is a serious problem because definitions of characters start to vary as a result. Talking about additions and deletions, some of Voldemort's secrets are omitted, a battle scene is skipped and another one is inserted. The merits of each can be debated ad nauseum but the rationale behind each choice is not difficult to see. Sometimes one needs to turn off that book lover switch and see if the movie succeeds by itself and this one clearly manages to do so.

So what makes 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince' the most compelling of the films and quite possibly the best of the bunch? For one, I didn't feel the pangs of huge missteps like I experienced after watching each of the previous flicks. For another, there is nothing more impressive than a movie that is able to bury itself in character development at the cost of action set-pieces. Yes, this film is almost too quiet for a Harry Potter flick but it is a stillness that reaches deep within and makes you think. And perhaps the most important question of all, does it accomplish the herculean task of capturing the spirit of JK Rowling's novel on the silver screen? The query is best answered by recalling that day years ago when I finished reading the sixth novel soon after its release. I felt a mixture of sadness and expectation triggered by the way the tale unfolded in book six. The truth is that the same feeling of melancholic anticipation came home to roost as the credits rolled on movie six. I just cannot provide a better endorsement of this movie than that!