Going to see a Harry Potter film bears a similarity to attending a family reunion, particularly if the relatives live far away. At each event, one expects changes, one sees changes: the kids grow up, the adults get older. There are interesting stories to tell about the intervening period and much to catch up on, before, sadly, it is time to part yet again.
The characters and actors of the Harry Potter films are now quite familiar to the public. However, prior to seeing the latest installment, I made a point of watching the first five films again in order to refresh my memory: it is rather interesting to see how Harry / Daniel Radcliffe has grown up, along with his co-stars Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. These actors have spent their lives in front of the camera, which must make for an interesting family album of sorts. Perhaps this process, however, increases the audience’s emotional engagement with the characters from the get-go.
However, once the lights dimmed, my first strong impression was that the films are growing progressively darker. We are not re-introduced to Harry living in his suburban hell of Little Whingeing with the dreadful Dursley family. Nor are we treated to the comic relief that implies: e.g., there are no “inflatable aunts” who fly away like a wayward helium balloon blasted by a hurricane. Rather, we catch up with Harry on his own in a dingy railway cafe reading a newspaper, a scene that is more Edward Hopper than Walt Disney. The colours are washed out, there is genuine grit and dirt in the station, and rather than charmed by whimsy, we are brought back into the realm of magic by Professor Dumbledore’s sudden, if subtle, appearance out of thin air behind a passing train.
The maturation of the setting is matched by the increasing tension in the plot. There are no gigantic battle scenes in this film as in Order of the Phoenix: however, we can tell this is unhappy time from the very beginning. The sinister Death Eaters destroy a London bridge, killing innocent people in the process. The sun rarely shines; the clouds threaten both magical and non-magical personages alike. People are dressed in darker colours as well: Malfoy dresses entirely in black, even Harry seems be clad in more shaded garb.
The central obsession of Harry and his mentor Professor Dumbledore (once again brilliantly portrayed by Michael Gambon) is to find a means to destroy Lord Voldemort, Harry’s nemesis. Perhaps the most interesting element of this mystery is the fact that the answer doesn’t lie within a set of physical clues, but rather in the memory of the Potions teacher, Horace Slughorn. Slughorn, played expertly by veteran actor Jim Broadbent, conveys a combination of doddering endearment, snobbishness and hidden shame with aplomb. It’s also interesting how Harry manages to convince him to tell the truth: it’s not via intimidation or coercion, rather it’s achieved by persuasion, intelligence and an appeal to emotion.
Plot facets of this type make the film more sophisticated than any of its predecessors; however, there are more conventional themes which also still show there is a way to go for Harry and his cohorts in their process of growing up. While this could not be said to constitute pure comedy, per se, the theme of young love makes a repeated appearance with sometimes humorous consequences. Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley has to contend with the overbearing attentions of a lovelorn younger girl, Lavender Brown as well as the continuing affections of Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger. Harry discovers he has feelings for Ginny Weasley, Ron’s sister, and finds those difficult to bear at first as her attentions are on other boys. However, as awkward and cringeworthy that these teenage romances can seem, again, it hints that adulthood is coming: the early films were wonderfully childish in their fixation on things. A wand was a wondrous gift, as were magic books, candies that taste like “any flavour” and even wizards’ companions like owls or cats. The wonder now is shifting to relations between people: who loves whom, who cares for whom, a stolen kiss, a tender holding of hands. It also shifts to other kinds of affection, like one has for a mentor, as Harry feels for Professor Dumbledore, and the grieving that death instills. Adults know that such things are more magical than any spell; Harry and his friends’ growing understanding of the concept is a reflection of their increasing maturity.
Is this film perfect? No. It is not high art, partially because it doesn’t stand on its own: its excellence is somewhat reliant on its place in the series. Furthermore, the title itself is not fully explained; in the book, the “Half-Blood Prince” is not just the moniker of an old potion textbook’s former owner. It is a reflection of shame by its previous keeper given his mixed (e.g. magic and non-magic) heritage. This lineage has a significance in the wider series, as “pure blood” is one of Lord Voldemort’s fixations. Furthermore, Harry’s relationship with the textbook in the original novel is rather more intimate: he regards it as an old friend, and whoever the mysterious Half-Blood Prince was, a knowledgeable companion. The film does not convey this particularly well: rather, the book is more like the “Precious” from Lord of the Rings, something inherently evil which requires careful disposal.
Furthermore, I am not sure that the intended audience is going to find this as appealing as I did. The crowds I saw were largely comprised of children who would barely have been a gleam in their parents’ eyes when the first Potter film was released, let alone when the first novel was published. It seems less likely they have the familarity and history with the books and films that older children and adults would have. By the end, some of the audience were making noises at inappropriate junctures. This lack of respect also may reflect the film’s length, which is above average. It seems a pity that people’s attention spans are so limited that they cannot appreciate this film without causing disruption. The ruckus did impinge on the forboding atmosphere at the end, a warning, that as dark as this chapter has been, darker still lay in store. This may not be appreciated by those who were in the same cinema as myself, but personally, after having said good-bye once more, I cannot wait for the next reunion.