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‘The Half-Blood Prince’ raises the stakes

There’s an odd hint of familiarity as two figures – cloaks flapping the wind – stand on a rocky outcrop, the camera swooping over the waves towards them. Moments later, inside a cave, the wizened old man bellows a spell, his flowing white hair and matching beard silhouetted against a sea of flames. And when a mass of pale, skeletal figures with big eyes creep up from the water (is that you Gollum?), it’s clear that ‘The Half-Blood Prince’ has ‘Lord Of The Rings’-scale ambitions.

About bloody time too. After teasing with five increasingly epic outings, the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise finally comes close to reaching its full potential. Certainly the subject matter – imminent destruction of muggle and wizard worlds at Voldemort’s hands – allows for the grand, sweeping interpretation JK Rowling’s books demand. And now incumbent director David Yates and returning screenwriter Steve Kloves don’t hold back – much. From the breathless aerial sequence of London’s destruction to a vertiginous showdown both keep the cataclysms coming on a grand scale.

But there’s a very obvious reluctance to get too dark. Although this is a coming of age series, all the emphasis on costume balls, banquets, chocolates, bleeding love and that infernal Quidditch renders the coming apocalypse almost inconsequential – and lets important plot points (horcruxes anyone?) whoosh past. That, despite clocking in at almost three hours.

Thankfully, with such an emphasis on Harry and his chums, most of the young actors make the grade. Emma Watson keeps getting better – and less irritating – as Hermione Granger, Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) has eventually found the line between overacting and enthusiastic, and Tom Felton, as Draco Malfoy, now gets his turn to do more than scowl. And newcomer Hero Fiennes Tiffin is suitably creepy as the young Tom Riddle who grows up to be He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (incidentally played by his uncle Ralph).

Yet Daniel Radcliffe seems to have outgrown the title role. Immensely focused when times get tense, he struggles with the throwaway dialogue, his mind clearly on the intricacies of ‘Equus’ instead of Kloves’ Hollywood punchlines. And Bonnie Wright, as his love interest Ginny Weasley, occasionally showcases lessons learned at the Steven Seagal School of Acting.

The adult performers not sidelined by this youthful domination – Michael Gambon’s resilient Dumbledore, Alan Rickman’s subtly shaded Snape and a doddering Jim Broadbent as the new loopy lecturer – effortlessly cast their own spells on proceedings.

And truly magical those proceedings are. Plot issues aside, ‘The Half-Blood Prince’ takes you through the Room of Requirement into a world of wonder that’s difficult to escape. Not unlike Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth.

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