The Great and Powerful Wizard
By Matt Connolly
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Dir. David Yates, U.S./U.K., Warner Brothers
Among contemporary action-fantasy franchises, the Harry Potter films are unique for the multiple directorial voices behind them. While it would be hard to read them as auteurist exercises, others have nevertheless been marked by—and in some cases benefited from—a single person at the camera. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for which Jackson bent over backwards to preserve J.R.R. Tolkien’s original books and accommodate the series’ fans expectations, provides an obvious comparison. Yet the sheer constancy of Jackson’s presence meant his predilections (particularly a penchant for ghoulish, CGI-enhanced atmospherics) seeped into the finished product, giving those films a stylistic coherence. The contemporary rash of superhero films, while different in many ways from fantasy epics, have also become associated with their directors: the gently self-aware earnestness of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, or the moody, postindustrial noir that Christopher Nolan has infused into the Batman series.
The Harry Potter franchise, on the other hand, which has gone through no less than four directors over the course of six films, has a status as a continually developing pop phenomenon. In book form, the saga remained very much ongoing when Warner Brothers released the first big-screen adaptation in 2001. This was shrewd in terms of box-office prospects, but it’s also given many of the films an unsettled quality. As author J.K. Rowling continued to churn out increasingly longer and darker books, the films have had to adapt in tone and style, with one director’s talents often making him a reasonable choice for one episode but unsuited for another. This not to mention the impossibility of unified cinematic interpretation when the overarching narrative remains unresolved. Nor would fans necessarily want there to be one. Even more so than much-beloved—and long-completed—series like Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia, the open-ended nature of the Potter series throughout much of the film franchise’s existence placed primary focus upon Rowling, not any of her cinematic interpreters. Seeing a favorite character or sequence on screen may have its pleasures, but the ultimate questions posed by the series (who lives? who dies? what happens next?) can only be answered by one person. She’s at her laptop, not behind the camera. As a result, there’s even less room than usual to impress an outside vision upon the preexisting text. Like small children or house guests, it seems like the less we see and hear Harry Potter directors, the better.
This has resulted in a push-pull within the Harry Potter films—pursuing the material’s filmic possibilities while not obscuring or altering the qualities that fans look and pay for—that’s quite fascinating, especially when one sees how each of the four men behind these films have interpreted this particular challenge. (Funny, how the product of a female author’s mind has been exclusively imagined through male eyes.) The inoffensive, sentimental oeuvre of Chris Columbus made him an obvious choice for the first two films—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001); Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)—and he dutifully showcased the books’ high points with a largely presentational aesthetic and often plodding pace. Though not without their charms, these tentative early films feel like Cliff’s Notes: thorough, straightforward, and best utilized to augment an outside text. In a delicious change-up for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Warner Brothers ditched Columbus (he remained a producer) and brought in Alfonso Cuarón, who, as in Y tu mamá también (2001), maintained a balance between character and milieu through long takes and exploratory tracks—an organic style missing from the character/effects-shot dichotomy prevalent in Columbus’s direction. Cuarón’s film was at once looser and more focused, and I could have kissed him for ending this tale of burgeoning youthful turmoil with a freeze-frame of a broom-riding Harry that playfully echoed The 400 Blows. Cuarón unfortunately only lasted one film (to date, Azkaban remains the lowest-grossing Potter movie) and was replaced on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) by Mike Newell, whose background in romantic comedy was probably instrumental in the budding romantic entanglements and interpersonal frictions that made for the film’s liveliest moments. Otherwise, despite an appealingly darker visual and emotional palette, Goblet of Fire feels more in line with Columbus’s respectful highlight reel than Cuarón’s immersive aesthetic.
This brings us to David Yates. British-born and with a background in television, Yates helmed the two most recent installments and has been chosen to direct the final pair of films (the seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will be split over two films). This places him well ahead of his compatriots in the number of movies directed, and raises the question of what Yates has demonstrated that secured him this lengthy stay on the series’ directorial merry-go-round. As always, economics surely had something to do with it; only the first film bested Yates’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) in domestic gross. Yet if Yates lacks some of Cuarón’s formal zip, he has proven to be an evocative interpreter of Rowling’s ever-darkening world, unafraid to embrace the series’ bleaker tone and rising body count even as he mixes in generous helpings of humor and pathos. At once narratively scattershot and jammed with plot detail, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is far from a great film. Yet watching Harry, Ron, and Hermione travel through the increasingly sinister hallways of Hogwarts, I was pleasantly surprised at how easily I became lost in the shadowy and sinister images, how pleasurably familiar yet fresh the rhythms between cast members felt. It’s to the credit of Yates and his skilled set of collaborators—particularly cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Stuart Craig—that the good will the series has built with viewers over time and the fanciful detours Rowling has taken in her books have been harnessed as artistic opportunities, and not occasions for coasting.
Half-Blood Prince takes place in a world of blindingly white snow and dark, murky corridors. The warming glow of fire so present in the Harry Potter universe—most notably in the hundreds of candles that float above the Hogwarts dining room—slowly gives way to blue-gray light diffused through fog and smoke. Faces become ashen as spirits feel the weight of coming darkness. Lord Voldemort’s return is fast approaching, and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) returns to a Hogwarts under literal and figurative clouds. Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) once again calls upon Harry to unlock the mysteries behind Voldemort’s reappearances, telling him to ingratiate himself with the recently returned Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). A charming, if self-important, potions expert whose string of notable pupils included a young Tom Riddle (aka Voldemort), Slughorn may hold the key to how the evil wizard has returned. And, as always, interpersonal complications run concurrent to large-scale intrigue: Harry contends with his growing attraction to Ron’s younger sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright), who’s dating classmate Dean Thomas (Alfie Enoch). Hermione (Emma Watson), meanwhile, tries to hide her growing feelings for Ron (Rupert Grint) after he gets involved with the overzealous Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave). Draco (Tom Felton), meanwhile, has separated himself from the student body as he accepts a murderous task from Voldemort’s followers.
Given its increasingly ominous air, whole stretches of Half-Blood Prince have surprising comic buoyancy and tenderness. Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves treat the aforementioned adolescent angst with bemused affection, foregrounding the easy chemistry between Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson. One of the chief pleasures of the series has been charting the collective growth of these three actors, and each has developed signature moments to savor: the way Watson’s prim incredulity always carries a sly undertow of rebellion, or the goofy and touching emotional transparency Grint conveys through his pale elasticity. They often bring out the best in Radcliffe, whose reserved performance necessarily grounds the film but benefits from the flashes of humor and warmth seen in his scenes with Watson and Grint. A moment when Harry comforts a jealous and heartbroken Hermione after Ron runs off with Lavender proves all the more touching for how little Radcliffe and Watson emote, trusting their accumulated on-screen history to fill in the emotional gaps.
Such scenes have given the franchise a recognizably beating heart, yet Harry’s relationships with the adults have always felt just as crucial, and perhaps even more essential. Grownups occupy ever-shifting positions in Harry Potter, prone to acts of betrayal and murder yet also possessing extraordinary reserves of wisdom and caring. As befitting a story set in a boarding school, the Harry Potter films particularly emphasize the mysterious connections that adolescents have with their educators: the endearments, the suspicions, the flashes of fallibility and fear beneath an exterior of cool intelligence. These relationships can be played for humor—witness the comically strained dinner that Slughorn puts on for “select students”—or suspense, but they inevitably circle back to the idea that maturation comes from recognizing that adults are often as lost as the children they guide (or betray). This ambivalence is central to Harry’s relationships with Dumbledore, a twinkly-eyed protector whose fatherly guidance has increasingly become at odds with the dangerous situations he’s forced to place Harry within. Yates lingers upon this relationship from the very beginning of the film, with a memorable opening image of Dumbledore guiding Harry through a barrage of photographers’ bursting flashbulbs. Gambon excels at conveying Dumbledore’s quiet affection and guilt-laced expectations of Harry, particularly as the extent of the forthcoming danger becomes apparent.
It’s a danger Yates does not shy away from. Dread courses through Half-Blood Prince, bursting forth in vivid and frightening moments: A young girl thrashed about by invisible forces, her blood-red coat against the bone-white show; the sudden fiery destruction of a beloved character’s home. But Yates isn’t just interested in quick, dirty jolts. Anxiety creeps into quieter scenes. A particularly elegant tracking shot cuts away from Harry comforting Hermione and travels around the exterior of Hogwarts, catching a glimpse of Ron and Lavender kissing next to a window and continuing on to an isolated Draco, staring out at the night’s sky. Encompassing ambivalent personal tensions and larger, menacing threats within the same shot, the moment underscores the instability creeping into Hogwarts on all levels. Indeed, perhaps the film’s deftest trick is drawing upon our visual and narrative associations of the school as a space of safety and violently upending them. For me, there may have been no more disturbing image in Half-Blood Prince than when Voldemort minion Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) smashes the windows of the Hogwarts dining room, cackling madly as those serene floating candles are unceremoniously snuffed out.
On second thought, there is one image that’s more disturbing: the death of a certain key character that has by now been widely circulated but will not be spoiled here. Suffice to say, Half-Blood Prince handles it with striking speed and visual economy, preferring to highlight the moment’s confusion and sudden betrayal over extended bathos. Like so much else in the film, its weight took me by surprise: once again, a tribute to filmmaking prowess as much as character affection. Half-Blood Prince does not lack in flaws. Hermione is largely denied narrative purpose besides supporting/pining for her male friends, and a revelation regarding Severus Snape (the divine Alan Rickman) feels feebly tossed-off. But I’ll take all of these if it means getting more moments as exquisitely desolate as when Yates’s camera slowly, silently descends from the roof of the decimated Hogwarts dining room, surveying the damage and reminding us that nothing will ever be the same. Yates isn’t the first director to tackle Harry Potter. Hell, he objectively may not be the best director. As this most uneven and intriguing of modern film franchises enters its brooding final movement, however, he’s proven to be the right director. How magical is that?