Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The Harry Potter Film Rewatch Project: #6 Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

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Trigger Warnings for mentions of rape. Spoiler Warnings for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Once more we enter the breach my good friends! With the end very nearly in sight, too! Yeesh, that went by fast. I don’t have too much to say in the preamble honestly. Yates is still directing, no new cast members of significance really show up—Jim Broadbent does a good job as Slughorn mind you, but since he doesn’t really contribute anything to the series after this movie. Also, due to the fact that I only heard bad things about the format I adopted for the Order of the Phoenix piece, we’ll be returning to my pedantic self indulgence. Alright, let’s go!

Rewatching Now

The film opens up with Harry being mobbed by the press after the fight with the Death Eaters that happened in the end of Order of the Phoenix. It’s an odd scene, given that the previous film did not end in this way and Yates, having directed both of them, should know that. However, it is effective in showing Harry’s trauma and damaged frame of mind after the death of Sirius and the brief possession by Voldemort. What’s strange is that the previous film ended after when this opening scene is set, and there’s nothing to indicate if this is a nightmare of Harry’s or anything. Still, while I do have my problems with Yates as a director, he is generally quite good at following ‘show don’t tell’.

That continues in the next scene, which shows a trio of Death Eaters, one of whom we’ll later learn is Fenrir Greyback, as they attack Diagon Alley, dragging a man with a bag over his head out of a shop before heading off to destroy a bridge. A bridge which manages to not have any people on it when it finally breaks, meaning it’s less terrorism and more very expensive vandalism. There’s not even a boat passing under it to get smashed or anything. The cost of a PG rating I guess.

This odd now that I think about it. Did they think the reason behind the negative reaction to the previous two movies was the rating? That they were too edgy? I really don’t think that was it. This movie does a very good job at earning its PG rating mind you. It’s not mind destroyingly dark and creepy like an 80’s PG movie, but it clearly needs parents to think twice unlike, say, Frozen, where PG just meant ‘practically G’.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a proponent of grimdark. And this is technically a family movie. I have my own feelings about that as a term. I particularly dislike it in trying to keep darker stuff out of such films, but still, grimdark is bad. It’s part of why I hate the seventh book. But showing the Death Eaters attacking a bridge, then giving all the people on it time to get off of said bridge, really weakens the impact of them as a threat, at least in this stage of the movie.

The majority of the opening is quite powerful though, very well shot. We then proceed to travel to a small restaurant in a subway…somewhere. Harry’s there, so I assume it’s close to where the Dursley’s live but since they’re not in this movie I can’t say for certain. Regardless, he is being flirted with, and flirting back to, a pretty young woman of African descent. It’s nice to see Harry doing something unconnected to the plot or magic in general, and it’s nice to see more people of color with lines in these movies. The poor girl never comes up again and as soon as Harry manages to secure a date, Dumbledore shows up to take Harry away so quickly Harry can’t even explain. Very rude of you Dumbledore, making Harry stand that nice, unnamed young woman up! She wanted to read his newspaper!

The film proceeds to show us Apparition, the wizarding form of teleportation, and quite viscerally makes it clear that this is not a fun way to travel. Harry’s comments to this effect are quite enjoyably snarky. Daniel Radcliffe is a mixed bag as an actor, but he is quite good at dry snark, something we get a lot of from him in this movie.

Dumbledore explains that they are there to recruit an old colleague of his, Professor Horace Slughorn. We then get a fun scene as Harry and Dumbledore explore a trashed house. It was meant to trick them into leaving, but Dumbledore isn’t fooled and quickly reveals that Slughorn is still present, disguised as an armchair, an armchair that’s not only pristine, it’s sitting completely upright. It’s a neat little way of showing the man’s character, his vanity and obsession with his own comfort, without anyone having to say much. I like it. I also like the sequence where Dumbledore and Slughorn use magic to repair the house and everything moves in reverse back to how it should be. It’s a fun effect!

Slughorn resists Dumbledore’s open attempts to get him to come work at Hogwarts, but falls for Dumbledore’s actual plan, which was to tweak the man’s ambition and fondness for having influential proteges like Harry. That…sounds kind of predatory when I write it like that. In all honesty though, the entirety of the scene introducing Slughorn is quite good, full of little character moments, verbal and nonverbal, to give glimpses of this new character. They’re kind of wasted unfortunately, since he won’t do much of anything in the films to come, nor in this movie after the second act, but still. In the moment, they’re all quite nice and well put together.

Dumbledore then proceeds to just sort of…drop Harry off at the Burrow. Outside the Burrow actually, which appears to be rather marshy, leaving Harry to tromp through what must be quite cold water. Sorry just…it’s been very wet and cold where I currently live, and I have no boots, so I’m in a mood about wet socks right now. And he could have dropped him off not in a puddle, even if he couldn’t get Harry closer to the house itself! Though I suppose if he hadn’t put Harry in that spot in particular, then Harry wouldn’t have gotten a glimpse of Ginny through her bedroom window. And, if he’d been closer to the house then we wouldn’t have gotten a little comedy moment of Ginny finding Harry’s things in the Burrow before Harry himself had entered, confusing everyone.

Everyone but Fleur Delacour and Bill of course. Because they’re not in this movie! Even though their wedding is an important set piece in the next book/movie! The Deathly Hallows came out two years before this movie did, so they knew that the wedding was going to have to happen in the next installment, but they don’t even mention it. I can’t…I’m sorry, it’s just very strange. I know that, in the grand scheme of things, Bill and Fleur don’t actually matter, so I get them not being present. But the lack of even a throwaway line to indicate that the wedding is going to happen is confusing in the scheme of things. Just two sentences and everything would have been okay!

Oh, also, Harry and Ginny have sexual tension now. It…just sort of happens. Not a lot of setup, nothing in the last movie to indicate anything like this (despite, once again, the fact that they knew this relationship was coming). They can’t go anywhere without giving each other ‘eyes’. Or maybe there was lots of buildup and I just didn’t notice because I have gay goggles on.

Well, we move past the Burrow to Snape’s place, where he’s hanging out with Peter Pettigrew (bonus points for getting the same actor to come in for a literal five second cameo) and visited by Bellatrix and Narcissa Malfoy. Narcissa has come to talk to Snape about some evil plan Voldemort wants Draco to carry out, and how she wants Snape to help Draco with doing so. Bellatrix is there because, while she’s evil, she does care for and worry about her little sister, and she doesn’t trust Snape. Most of the scene is Narcissa and Snape trying to have an adult conversation while Bellatrix walks around acting like a petulant brat, touching Snape’s things. It’s kind of wonderful, and I love it. But the main meat of the scene, aside from removing any ambiguity about whether or not Draco is up to something, is that Snape makes a magical vow (the Unbreakable Vow in fact, because wizards are not subtle) to help and protect Draco, and to carry out his mission if the kid is unable to.

The movie switches to a brighter scene. Quite literally in fact, as we’re now in Fred and George’s joke shop, Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. It’s a bright, colorful, and loud location, full of excited shoppers and noisy merchandise. I rather suspect that Yates had some choice names he called Newell upon realizing that the other director had cut the scene explaining how the Twins got enough money to open a shop from Goblet of Fire. Alhough given that he’s creating a similar series of messes for himself for the final two films with what he cuts in this one, I don’t have all that much pity for him here.

Not much happens in this scene. We get some jokes and some fun visuals, but the point is to have them notice and follow Draco Malfoy to Borgin and Burkes (the creepy shop from the second movie). Now, this is mostly how it happens in the book, but there’s a notable difference between the two, one that makes the scene in the film worse.

See, in the book Draco just threatens to have Greyback visit Borgin. Here, Greyback is present at the initial visit. Draco is seen fraternizing with the Death Eaters’ resident chief werewolf! Not only does that have to be illegal, and thus an easy way for Harry to solve his Draco problem, it also makes every moment where someone scoffs at Harry’s belief that Draco is a bonafide Death Eater insane. We have no reason to assume that Dumbledore’s is the only Pensieve in existence, and we’re shown that false memories aren’t convincing in the slightest later. All Harry has to do is tell someone, offer up Ron and Hermione as corroborating witnesses and boom! Problem solved! All because Yates wanted Draco to have an escort in this scene. I don’t even know why, he’d already introduced Greyback in the first scene after all.

Well, we don’t know what exactly Draco was doing in there at least, they’re leaving a twist for us (more than Goblet of Fire did thankfully). We just know that it’s bad and has the support of the Death Eaters. That’s good at least, leaving us with some mystery.

We then move to the Hogwarts Express. Harry decides to spy on Draco who is being…remarkably open about his allegiances for someone ostensibly trying to pull off a stealth mission, even if he is a teenager. I mean, he’s not saying any actual names or anything, but given that he’s not even in a compartment, he’s still very blatant. Of course, Harry isn’t good at stealth either, and when he attempts to spy on Draco under the invisibility cloak he’s quickly noticed, incapacitated, and left paralyzed on the train under said cloak, the intention being to just let him go back to London and miss a few days of school. Or possibly die, depending on how carefully they actually check and clean the Express.

The day is then saved by Luna, wearing some funny glasses she’d been seen in earlier. She says they’re for ‘wrackspurts’, funny creatures that get in people’s heads and make them think all fuzzy. And they certainly let her see…something floating around Harry’s head. I thought the idea was supposed to be that none of the things Luna believed in were real so…I don’t know if she’s actually seeing wrackspurts or what. But she sees them grouped together in a random spot of the floor of a random train car, and so casts the spell that cancels out other spells. I’m actually not certain why she did that, unless wrackspurts only congregate in groups around human heads and are otherwise very solitary creatures?

The problem is that this isn’t what happened in the book. In the book it was Tonks who found Harry, because she’s an auror and the Ministry had a couple sweep the trains to check for stuff. She noticed Draco coming out of the car looking smug, and went to check since his parents were known Death Eaters. Given her training, she was able to find Harry. I’m not entirely sure why Tonks isn’t in the scene, to be honest. She is in a later scene, so it’s not as though the actor (Natalia Tena) was completely unavailable. If I were to guess I’d say it’s to give Luna more screen time. And on the one hand I’m okay with that, since Luna is great, and since I do not like how Tonks is handled in this book, I’m okay with them cutting her time. On the other hand, this does result in Harry’s rescue feeling off.

Regardless, Harry and Luna walk up to the castle, where Flitwick is guarding the gates and gets appropriately pedantic about security. I mean, admittedly his security is just asking students their names, a measure that feels deeply inadequate, but given the war, pedantry is appropriate. And it’s just nice to see Flitwick doing something other than directing the choir, even if it is just for comedy. After a little more banter we go the Great Hall and the welcoming feast, where the narrative throws us a curve ball. For once the new staff member isn’t going to be teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts (DADA), but Potions. Snape will be teaching DADA this year.

The next day Harry and Ron start off acting as if they have a free period, when McGonagall confronts Harry about his class schedule. She was under the impression that he wanted to be an auror, but he noticeably isn’t taking Potions, a required class. This is a bit of problem since she acts like Harry wanting to be an auror is known to her, and Harry doesn’t dispute that this is his ambition but he’s never actually mentioned this before. Not in any movie before this. I get that it’s important that he goes to Potions class without a textbook (he wasn’t planning on taking the class because Snape was super stringent about the required grades to get into his advanced classes and Harry had failed to get the required grade, but Slughorn is more lenient) due to, you know, the title, but there were other ways to get him that textbook. Have some accident happen that destroys his textbook and requires him to use a school one! There you go, problem solved. We’re never going to see Harry acting as an auror, so frankly it’s less important than a lot of the stuff they chose to completely omit.

We then get a montage of potions class stuff happening, including a weird moment of the female students (sans Hermione of course) being drawn to a love potion like moths to a light. It’s supposed to smell like the most appealing combination of scents possible, so it makes sense that they’d be drawn to it, but notably none of the boys react like that, making the moment feel a bit…gross. There’s also a funny callback to the Columbus films when Seamus’ potion blows up in his face harmlessly, plus Emma Watson gets book accurate Hermione hair (as a gag to demonstrate her stress mind you). The main point however, is to show that the used textbook Harry got is full of super good advice about how to brew potions, which results in Harry managing to brew the potion they’re trying to make flawlessly, much to Hermione’s displeasure.

It’s then on to the first private lesson with Dumbledore, where he reveals that he intends to show Harry memories of encounters with a young Voldemort, aimed to prepare him for something he’ll learn at a later date. We then see Dumbledore’s first time meeting Tom Riddle, who is played by a terrible child actor. Just…an absolutely terrible child actor, who is in fact Ralph Fiennes’ nephew. Now, the production team says that the kid was chosen not out of nepotism but because of his resemblance to Ralph Fiennes. I find that suspicious though, given that Ralph Fiennes doesn’t resemble Ralph Fiennes in these movies!

Twins I tell you, twins!

Still, the scene is fine enough, and gives a decent glimpse into the character of a young Tom Riddle. This scene transitions to the tryouts for the Quidditch team, which, since it’s the first scene outside in the middle of the day, lets us talk about the lighting of the film without having to make allowances. This film is dark. Not tonally (though it can be), just generally. Setting and locations that were once bright and inviting now look cold and wet as if they were actually located in Scotland. Almost every scene looks muted and washed out, even ones set inside Hogwarts in rooms that should be well lit. I get why they did it, it’s atmospheric and it helps communicate the tragedy and fear of the world at large in this scenario, but it can be jarring and frankly a pain to look at. So it’s a mixed bag between a reasonable and artistic directorial choice and an unpleasant viewing experience.

Things happen rather quickly from here, with lots of drama. Ron makes the Gryffindor Quidditch team, thanks in no small part to Hermione sabotaging the competition, and then helps win the first game because Harry pretended to drug him. Oof, poor Ron. I mean…poor Ron, this whole movie. Especially in the final scene, but we’ll get to that when we get to that.

Slughorn holds his first meeting of the potential proteges he’s collected, which mainly serves to provide comedy, more awkward chemistry between Harry and Ginny, and help keep Slughorn present for when he eventually becomes more directly important to the plot. Harry and Ron have a moment where they discuss girls under the pretext of Ron trying to wrap his head around Ron dating Dean Thomas. This leads to them discussing, among other things…Dean Thomas. Openly and vocally, late at night. Probably after curfew. In the room they share with Dean Thomas. That poor boy…

But since part of the themes of this particular movie is ‘life goes on’ we get romance drama! Ron, as stated before, helps Gryffindor win a Quidditch match. The celebration gets heated, leading to Ron making out with Lavender Brown, a fellow student in their year. This devastates Hermione, because hormones are the worst, and leads to her crying and leaning on Harry, as well as him admitting his own crush on Ginny.

None of this drama is quite my thing, since I don’t watch wizarding movies for awkward teen nonsense, and it’s all straight and thus none of my ships are present (I don’t actually have all that many Harry Potter ships, come to think of it) but it’s well acted and written. Ron is a believable smug brat who doesn’t realize he’s being a smug brat, Hermione is trying her best to function normally but does stupid stuff to provoke a response, and Harry is desperately flailing because he doesn’t know how to emotion properly. Harry joking that he’s okay with a girl only liking him because he’s ‘the chosen one’ and getting whacked by Hermione is one of the high points of the movie. And the party that follows, while sad for poor Neville (who, like in Goblet of Fire, gets used in place of a House Elf) is appropriately awkward, funny, and occasionally tense.

We then go on to the most contested part of the movie—the attack on the Burrow. It’s an action scene awkwardly inserted into the middle of the movie that contributes nothing to the overarching plot and is never brought up again. A scene invented solely for the movie. A scene that…I kind of love. Okay, it has it’s rough parts. For one thing, it’s Tonks’ one contribution to the movie, in which she is apparently already dating Lupin (also his one scene, but I’m not ashamed of my bias) and yet still has mousy brown hair, which was used in the book to symbolize her depression. I’m not sure why that is, or why she’s here, but I guess they wanted some acknowledgement of the relationship for the final film? Also in the category of rough parts is Lupin disputing Harry’s insistence on Draco as a Death Eater. This is rough for the reasons I stated earlier, even if his defense of Snape is more justifiable.

One of the more positive aspects is Ron awkwardly interfering with Ginny and Harry’s cringe inducing flirting and doing so in a way that leaves me unsure if he’s aware of what he’s doing or just that oblivious. If it was anyone else, I’d say they definitely knew what they were doing, but Ron isn’t prone to even attempted subtlety and would more likely cause a messy fight by telling Harry to get away from Ginny if he didn’t want them flirting so…

The more positive aspect is the contested scene itself, in which Bellatrix and Greyback show up to wreck the Burrow, drawing some of those gathered (first Harry and Ginny, but quickly Lupin, Tonks, and Mr. Weasley as well) out for a fight. The scene has some problems, to be sure. As mentioned previously, it’s original to the film, which means it both replaced other, important stuff that was left out and has no real bearing on the rest of the film. And the washed out color palette of the film makes this, a fight in a marsh at night, weirdly difficult to watch.

On the other hand, more Bellatrix. I really, really love Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix, I wasn’t shy about that in the last piece and I won’t be shy about it in this piece. And honestly, she and Greyback are the two most intimidating Death Eaters in the films. And yes, I’m including Voldemort. The Dark Lord might be more powerful and rational then these two, but Bellatrix is all cackling, sadistic taunting and Greyback is silent, predatory leering. They compliment each other and their respective styles of terrifying remarkably well in this scene. And the ending moment, of the Burrow being destroyed, is remarkably sad, even if there are no consequences to it.

Back at Hogwarts, we return once more to the Pensieve and another memory, this one the tampered memory of Slughorn’s regarding a mysterious piece of magic called Horcruxes. It being tampered with means that we don’t actually get much information from it, and this results in Harry being tasked with getting the actual, original memory from Slughorn.

We then get a tricky scene, in which Ron accidentally gets dosed with a love potion that was meant for Harry. And while it is stated that love potions get stronger over time (this particular batch was intended for the party Slughorn threw before Christmas), the behavior it provokes in Ron is…concerning. It’s played for laughs, but I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason why the full details of Voldemort’s parentage were left out of the movie is because Yates realized the date rape implications of love potions and decided to just not prod that mess. The tone then shifts abruptly when Ron is accidentally poisoned by a drink Slughorn gives him, one we later learn Slughorn forgot to give to Dumbledore. This does actually get a happy ending when Ron, sleeping in the Hospital Wing, murmurs Hermione’s name in his sleep, thereby ending his relationship with Lavender, and his feud with Hermione (though it’s later revealed that he doesn’t remember doing this once he wakes up).

The next scene of consequence is Harry stalking Draco into the bathroom and getting a duel with him. This culminates in Harry using a spell he found in the used potions textbook, Sectumsempra, which very nearly kills Draco, Snape just barely managing to save him. Once again, we have to talk about two changes from the book because, again, they matter. First is the change to the context of the duel between Draco and Harry. In the book, Harry hears someone crying in a bathroom, goes to investigate, gets ambushed, and responds with the first spell that comes to mind. The result is that, while not great, his decision is defensible and understandable. Here though, he purposefully chased down Draco, provoked a fight, and used, presumably, other spells before settling on the one that he didn’t know the effects of. That…is less great. Foolish to use a spell he didn’t know either way, but at least in the book he has the excuse of being ambushed.

The other issue is that, in the book, Harry gets severely punished for this. He’s put in detention for a while with Snape, and is forced to ditch the textbook to avoid trouble. Here…it’s never really mentioned again, and Harry voluntarily ditches the book out of guilt. This has the dual consequences of making Harry seem marginally more noble (in comparison to the problems mentioned in the previous paragraph) and making Hogwarts seem even more lax about student safety than usual. It does allow Harry and Ginny some privacy for their first kiss though, which is nice for them.

Realizing that he really needs to get that memory from Slughorn though, Harry decides to drink some luck potion (he won it in the first potions class, back at the beginning) in hopes of achieving his goals. And he does. The effects of the potion are interesting: they make Harry act stoned out of his gourd, but it is well done and amusing, so I don’t mind. Levity is appreciated! And we get to see Hagrid for what is the first time in this movie I’m pretty sure. At the very least it’s definitely the first time Harry interacts with him in this movie. Harry, Hagrid, and Slughorn (who Harry ran to elsewhere on the grounds on his way to see Hagrid, prompted by the potion) bury Aragog (the giant spider from the second movie) and then Harry manages to guilt Slughorn into giving him the memory Dumbledore wants.

Said memory reveals that Voldemort split his soul into seven pieces, scattering them across the UK to preserve himself and gain immortality. The diary from the second movie is retconned into being one, and Dumbledore reveals that he has already destroyed a second, a ring the belonged to Voldemort’s mother (though said ring starts spinning when Harry touches it, making me question if it was really destroyed), at the cost of his hand. In addition, Dumbledore has located another one, one that he wants Harry to come with him to destroy. And so they head off, as Dumbledore is able to Apparate on the Hogwarts grounds, presumably due to his role as headmaster (he just says that there are perks to being him).

The cave they go to is distinctive. It appears to be made almost entirely out of large crystals, a design I hadn’t seen before. There’s a lake within the cave, an island in the center, and the water is filled with corpses. Inferi to be exact, corpses manipulated and controlled by magic. Because this was the late 2000’s and everything had to have zombies in it. Everything.

Harry and Dumbledore manage to make it to the island without incident, but upon landing they find that the Horcrux they’re seeking (which turns out to be a locket) is sealed under some sort of potion. After a small bit of testing Dumbledore determines that he’ll need to drink the potion, which he sets about doing after ensuring that Harry will make sure he finishes it. And to his credit, while the effects of the potion are extreme and clearly cause Dumbledore emotional agony, Harry does fulfill this task, even though it clearly hurts him to do so.

Of course, Harry then loses points when he tries to get Dumbledore water. He uses a spell to put water in the now emptied potion’s basin, but when that fails to work (a spell prevents him from removing said water), he decides that rather than just conjuring the water directly into Dumbledore’s mouth, or into his hand to pour into Dumbledore’s mouth, the dark and scary lake is a good source! This gets him attacked by the previously mentioned zombies, but he’s saved by Dumbledore, who performs a remarkably impressive looking fire spell to chase off/incinerate said zombies so that the two can return to Hogwarts.

Once safely in the odd tower, Dumbledore tells Harry to go below and not let himself be seen. Harry does so, even as he sees Draco, Bellatrix, Greyback, and a few other Death Eaters corner him. He’s got his wand up, clearly ready to attack if need be, but is waiting for orders all the same. Then Snape arrives, managing to get Harry to lower his wand and stay still, goes up to the upper level…and kills Dumbledore. This prompts Bellatrix to celebrate with the Dark Mark and the others, Draco included, to flee.

This is an interesting change from the book, where Harry was paralyzed by Dumbledore and hidden under the invisibility cloak. On the one hand, it makes Snape’s seeming betrayal all the more powerful. Snape directly reassured Harry makes the betrayal personal instead of more general. On the other hand, Harry actually holding back and not attacking when he had the chance—not being impulsive—seems very out of character and strange for him.

What follows is Harry chasing after Snape and getting tortured by Bellatrix before learning that, in fact, Snape is the Half Blood Prince, the genius who helped Harry so much. That’s a delightful subversion in my opinion. Normally that would be the biggest twist, but after the murder of Dumbledore it barely registers.

What does register is the theme of life going on. First in the inhabitants of Hogwarts literally chasing away the darkness with their wands in tribute to Dumbledore, and then in Harry explaining his plans for the future to Ron and Hermione up in the tower where Dumbledore died. Though I do have to call foul on that scene. Not only is Ron sitting pretty far away from where Hermione is standing right by Harry, almost all of his lines reassuring Harry that he won’t be alone, and that his friends will help him, were given to her as well. Sure, the film ends with the three standing side by side, but having Ron be silent and in the back feels mean spirited.

Overall Thoughts

This was actually a pretty decent movie! The Half Blood Prince is often regarded as the red headed stepchild of the books (it and Order of the Phoenix appear to be the most contentious) and while this film isn’t perfect, and some of the stuff they cut shouldn’t have been cut, overall I enjoyed it. Yates is honestly a talented director, he just needs a very specific set of circumstances to make things work out, and things did come together well in this instance. Is the film flawless? No, not by a long shot. But I admit, I was surprised by how much I wound up appreciating this film. I’m going to rank it third, after Prisoner of Azkaban and Chamber of Secrets, and honestly it’s pretty close to being tied for second.

 Images Courtesy of Warner Bros.

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