Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I need a hero

Via Omnivoracious, a review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:

The first thing we see in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is the face of the hero (Daniel Radcliffe) filling the screen, looking grim. As a row of flashbulbs goes off, he flinches, like a criminal exposed. ... [W]hat of Harry? Well, he has committed no crime, so there’s no call for a brooding mug shot. And he’s long been a star of the wizard firmament, so there’s no reason to drape him in fresh celebrity. In short, we are left to ponder this dour and heavy style, and to wonder what sort of film—and what new trouble with Harry—it foretells.

Spoken like a man who knows nothing about the wizarding world. I mean nothing - including the last ten minutes of the previous Potter film. In short, we are left to ponder this puckish and condescending style, and to wonder what sort of reviewer of an installment in an unabashed film franchise fails to realize, or at any rate to note, the ways in which this installment fits with its predecessors.

I'm sure Mr. A. Lane has already been inundated with hate-mail from young teenagers on this point. But I ain't no teenager, I am a Potter fan, and in spite of my undoubted redundancy, I'd like to add my two cents.

Mr. Lane. Harry flinches because that scene comes on the heels of his godfather's (perhaps more accurately, his surrogate father's) violent death and his own brief possession by Voldemort. Harry was a "star of the wizard firmament"... until he witnessed, and testified to all and sundry, the rebirth of Voldemort at the end of Goblet of Fire, at which point he became an object of scorn to the Ministry of Magic and a lot of the wizarding public. Get your background straight, goofball. If you found the film unconvincing, say that - but don't review it as if it's intended to stand alone, because it's not. Even for first-timers, it's intended as an entree into the Potter collection, not as a one-off.

As for my own review, then: I looooved it. I saw it first at midnight on opening day with my twelve-year-old, who hadn't read the book; he was a little confused, but more by the adolescent romance stuff than by the plot twists. (Side note: I'm loving these midnight premieres! It's VERY fun indeed to get up in the middle of the night and go to a movie. And the frisson of post-midnight caffeine from the big old Diet Coke only adds to my ability to suspend my disbelief!) I came out of the theater declaring it the best Potter so far, and absolutely chomping at the bit for #7 and #8.

I saw it a second time a few days later with my midnight Twilight buddy, who had read the book at least as long ago as I did, and at last achieved a little distance. A little. The Potter universe is so fully realized by now that it's no effort at all for a fan like me (meaning, I've seen all the movies and own the last one, continue to re-watch the earlier ones at my parents' house - because my dad's a bigger fan than I am - and have read and reread the books, but not committed them to memory) to achieve that suspension of disbelief; Hogwarts is familiar territory, the Burrow a second home, Neville Longbottom (who has all of maybe two lines in this movie, but I'm glad they kept those two lines in) an old friend I'm just a little too busy to sit down with right now, Quidditch a game I seem to remember watching just last season - right?

So it's hard for me to be objective, because the Potterverse is a place I'd really like to be, even with the danger of persecution and death and all. But I'll say this: This movie found a way to reveal a great deal of the book's internal action. Compare it to the horror known as Dune, in which every thought (of course the thoughts in Dune were vital to the plot, so they had to be revealed somehow) was voiced over: Half-Blood Prince took some significant liberties with faithfulness to the book in order to move the viewer through plot points that otherwise happened only in, say, Harry's head. Oh, I know that this movie could take those liberties because the franchise is solid, and the Dune people knew that they were up against insane fans and had to stick as closely to the book as possible (just as the first Potter film, and Twilight too, had to), or else alienate those insane fans who were likely to be the film's biggest money. Suffice it to say I'm very glad that at this point in the Potter narrative, when so much in the books does happen either in thoughts or out of sight, the film franchise is strong enough to maintain enough creative control over how to bring out the most important points.

Another saving grace (that phrase overstates the case, but it's the best I can do) is that there's been enough time now since the publication of Half-Blood Prince (the book) that those of us who didn't reread the book in preparation for the movie are not all that clear on the details of those plot points. I came out of the theater both times contented that all necessary items had been hit, that all necessary setups had been set up - but not remembering for certain whether they'd been respectively hit and set up as they were in the book. It was all good; the next movie can begin with impunity.

[NOTE: Spoilers below, if there's such a thing as a Harry Potter spoiler.]

Things I loved: the kids had a chance to try out some fairly subtle acting chops, and they did well at it. The teenage angst stuff that confused my kid so much was spot-on: Hermione's pain at Ron's dalliance with Lavender, Cormac's overconfident vileness (oh my Lord, was he vile), Draco's terror and doubt warring with his pride and arrogance... And a point that I thought the movie actually did better than the book: Harry and Ginny repeatedly encounter one another here and there, sometimes by accident, sometimes by design, and the viewer can see the attraction growing between them. More: at least twice, Ginny becomes the first one to break from the group (of course we all know that Harry stands alone a lot) to go to Harry at times of danger or distress. We start to see how it is that this minor character, Ginny, might actually be the love of his life - not a pretty feebly depicted cardboard cutout, as she is throughout the books (yes, including most of Half-Blood Prince), but the witch who's good enough, brave enough, interesting enough to ensnare Harry Potter.

There's scene between Harry and Ginny that's actually shocking. Harry's standing on a landing of one of the Burrow's many stairways, and Ginny, coming up the stairs, notices that one of his shoes is untied. She gestures at it and murmurs, "Shoelace," then, before Harry can do anything about it, kneels at his feet and ties his shoe. Watching it is almost like walking in on their wedding night - it's wrong somehow, too personal, to see her tenderness and his wonderment - even though they don't touch any inch of one another's skin, they don't even brush sleeves in passing, at any time in the scene.

So let's get to Harry. In this movie, Harry (who looks nothing like Daniel Radcliffe any more, oddly enough) takes up the mantle that's been waiting for him: he's the Chosen One, the only one who can destroy Voldemort; he knows it, he accepts it, and he actively participates in it. He has no idea how he's supposed to accomplish the impossible - and at the end of the movie his despair over that lack is palpable - but he's a real hero, not going forward without fear but going forward in spite of fear. Heroism, thrust upon Harry in the first four movies, reluctantly chosen in the fifth, is something he walks right into, bespectacled eyes wide open, in this movie.

Heroism is so rare in movies, especially Harry's brand: Mission Impossible without the deus ex machina, which is odd, considering that magic ought to be the ultimate deus ex machina. Harry faces killing odds without more than a brief physical flinch, because he understands (or believes he does) that the purpose of his life is to lay it down for his friends. (I certainly hope that phrase sounds familiar.) There's a similarity between Radcliffe's portrayal of Harry, which I find utterly true to Rowling's writing of him, and the My Sister's Keeper story: Harry believes in every cell of his body that he was spared death for just one purpose, to kill the creature who killed his parents and who threatens his world.

At the end of the movie, he's appalled to learn (or to think he's learned) that Dumbledore died in vain: the Horcrux is a fake. But what he doesn't yet know is that Dumbledore's death serves Dumbledore's own greater purposes, that ultimately the war can't be won without it. And that's also what Harry doesn't know about his own life: that it's not just the endgame that counts. His saving Ginny when he was twelve, she eleven, not only destroys Riddle's diary (and, we find in Half-Blood Prince, a Horcrux) but also, eventually, gives his life a new and happy meaning and focus. God writes in crooked lines.

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