Astoundingly unimaginative, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince ruins the idea of popular entertainment. It’s the sixth tie-in with J.K. Rowling’s lucrative series of children’s books. All of the film versions have been pedestrian and overlong, as if trying to literally retell the book stories merely by adding up-to-date special effects—yet using them without creativity. This is the opposite of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight book series, which was wondrously re-imagined for the big screen by Catherine Hardwicke. The Potter film industry has never employed a good director. As a result: one bad movie in a series is unfortunate, six amounts to a catastrophe.
Adolescence should have been the series’ salvation. As Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) come of age at Hogwarts Academy, the series’ wizardry and fantasy and occult backstories (including the title lineage) could have been marvelous metaphors for sex, morality and maturation—like a bigger-budget Twilight. Instead, screenwriter Steve Kloves and director David Yates flummox the material. Love potions, teenage crushes, phallic Quidditch tournaments and spiritual
guidance counselors are dully mixed together. Strangest of all, this unerotic make-believe depicts flight without gravity, magic without mood, fantasy without wonder. It’s dramatically flat.
It’s hard to watch humorless British class fantasy after Hot Fuzz’s parody of high-falutin’ hierarchies. The perfect antidote to Harry Potter’s costly, exhausting, purely commercial enterprise is Somers Town, where British teens deal with the bewilderment of puberty, parental distance and social tradition in realistic circumstances more compelling than mere “magic.” Somers Town is not Shane Meadows’ best film (try 1999’s A Room for Romeo Brass or, most recently, This Is England), but it has his finest qualities: an appreciation of British working-class life as detailed as Ken Loach’s, characterizations as realistic as Mike Leigh’s and an interest in adolescent male impudence and longing like no other filmmaker. In this regard, Meadows’ original characters, regional authenticity and grasp of life’s comic-tragic dimensions are close to Mark Twain’s.
Look at how Somers Town’s two teenagers, Polish immigrant Marek (Piotr Jagiello) and Northern runaway Tomo (Thomas Turgoose), handle their loneliness, find friendship with each other almost telepathically, then partake of the world: They both help a local tradesman sand beach chairs for a few quid, compete for a French-émigré waitress’ attention, then get drunk together—for relief and experiment, as lads will. Friendship, made up of challenge and affection, has a convincing clarity that shames the inauthentic gimmicks of movies like Humpday, I Love You Man and, that rotted chestnut, Stand By Me. Meadows’ naturalist style captures the boys’ loneliness and restlessness; his observation of their deeper feelings (affections they aren’t old enough to understand) is justly discreet. When they nick clothes for Tomo from a Laundromat, their disappointment with the cache is believably hilarious: “It’s not retro, it’s ridiculous,” Tomo says of oversized plaid trousers.
City life is Meadows’ pretext for examining masculinity (and documenting social and economic changes in a storied enclave of London). His 16mm technique suggests trustworthy realism, and it’s poignant enough—particularly when B&W footage yields a color montage (real or imagined?) of the boys vacationing in Paris.
Meadows is superb on humane details, such as Marek’s father Mariuz (Ireneusz Czop) instinctively, affectionately, tussling his son’s hair. A boyish screw-up leads to one of the film’s best moments: Marek’s temper explodes when he discovers the aftermath of the boys’ wilding-out. Ashamed of his violent anger, muscle-bound Mariuz asks his son’s forgiveness. This precarious moment, capturing the seesaw of filial relations, recalls Stephen Chow’s CJ7 by way of Shoeshine. It compresses Shane’s Boys-to-Men theme. The offhand, neorealist style makes it feel unforced: genuine and rich.
Highlight #2 features Tomo’s calm at finally finding a purpose: donning the humbling stolen dress as work clothes, he earns his way for the first time and stands with Marek on a balcony overlooking the city that doesn’t know they’re there—just two ambitious outsiders among London’s displaced people.
The Half-Blood Prince never addresses class tension; but by following the hierarchy of Lord of the Rings-style fantasy, it demonstrates that Peter Jackson’s influence has destroyed storytelling efficiency. There’s no emotional structure to the narrative, and the F/X are full of mindless soaring, spinning, smoke-and-CGI. A trio of super villains, the Death Eaters led by amusingly daft Helena Bonham Carter, wreak destruction like the evil trio in Superman 2 but never show the wit Richard Lester brought to their mischief. How can a movie full of names like Ginny Weasley, Bellatrix Lestrange, Dumbledore, Severus Snape and Minerva McGonagall be so humorless? It flattens the Dickens tradition of playful/meaningful designations.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Directed by David Yates
Runtime: 153 min.
Directed by Shane Meadows
At Film Forum, July 15-28
Runtime: 70 min.
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