After a break long enough that most of us have forgotten the plot of Book 6 of the Potter series, the delayed HBP is now upon us. But from the moment a giant slate-grey WB (Warner Brothers) emerges through storm clouds as the haunting minor key refrain begins, the memories start to return.
Despite a recession-busting opening, and positive reviews, life has changed since the days when life stood still for a new Potter book or film. This one is very much part 1 of a 2-parter, a scene setter for the monster that will be 2010/11's Deathly Hallows. That said, it's a very good film. Well over 2 hours long, but apart from regretting how much coke I'd just drunk in Pizza Hut, the time zipped by.
Wisely, the film has filletted Rowlings book down to three main plotlines. The first is Dumbledore and Harry's pursuit of the key to Lord Voldemort's downfall. This happens to be a memory possessed by Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent on great form, reminded me of a former philosophy tutor), who Harry has to spend most of the school year winning over. The second theme is a secret mission entrusted to Draco Malfoy by the evil Voldemort, which we discover at the end of the film, and the third is teenage romance, of which more later.
In a welcome bucking of Hollywood trends, HBP resists the urge to get 'darker'. Even the stunning opening sequence, as black-trailed Death Eaters swoop through London, has a tremendous visual gag as the Millennium Bridge gets zapped and we see it wobbling alarmingly as pedestrians cling on to the handrails. Yes the weather seems defiantly grey throughout, but there probably hasn't been a funnier film in the franchise since Kenneth Branagh's superb turn as the vain Gilderoy Lockhart in Chamber of Secrets. In early films, much of the laughs came from the magic, here it comes from the characters. The acting across the board has gone up a notch or two, none more so than the comic acting, especially Rupert Grints Ron (thankfully banned from the slapstick gurning of earlier films), and Daniel Radcliffe himself. At one point the Coen brothers almost take over, as a tearful Hagrid, a stoned Harry (he's been drinking potions again) and faux-sincere Slughorn give a eulogy for a dead giant spider.
The action sequences are few and short - the arresting opening shot through London, an attack on the Weasleys hideaway, and a short duel between Harry and Malfoy. The final battle from Rowlings book has been removed completely. This seemed to give the characters more room to breathe: from the tortured Malfoy as he wrestles with his moral dilemma, to the ever-excellent Alan Rickman as Professor Snape. Dumbledore's relationship with Harry is allowed to pose questions it never answers - is Dumbledore using Harry as bait? Is he, like Voldemort, another adult using his power and influence to coerce a student into doing his bidding?
Like the work of Philip Pullman, there is a deep moral and spiritual core. At the beginning of the school term Dumbledore's brief and sombre message to the students warns them that evil is trying to infiltrate the school, and that it's chief weapon is the students themselves. That put me in mind of a question recently asked in our church 'is evil just the absence of good, or does it have a real existence?'. The answer here is both/and - Voldemort is real, but he works in and through people, some more willing than others. So Draco Malfoy wrestles with his conscience - if he kills Dumbledore his family will be saved, but his half-hearted efforts and knotted brow show that, however little he rates Dumbledore, he can't bring himself to kill. In fact Harry himself comes closest to crossing that line when he uses a mystery spell on Malfoy during a fight and - unwittingly - nearly kills him. Is ignorance an excuse? Is coercion? Is evil? Is anything? Discuss...
There are various religious hints too*, with a Moses-like parting of the waves (waves of fire in this case) to cross a cursed lake, and language seemingly lifted from CS Lewis about the need for the blood of a willing victim. Harry is, in pseudo-Messianic terms, repeatedly called 'the Chosen One', though being chosen is both a privelige and a burden. His final quest is to find and destroy the 7 pieces of Lord Voldemort's soul - with a strong and very clever visual hint late in the film that one of those is actually Harry. The repeated theme of sacrificial death to overcome evil (Harry's mother, Dumbledore) will become even more pronounced in the finale, as it finally intersects with the Chosen One himself.
With plenty of stunning scenery, and the teen angst angle played with much more subtlety than before, there's plenty to enjoy. In fact, add in a few Orcs and horses and you've nearly got Lord of the Rings Part 1, with a band of young but faithful friends, a mystery quest, an elderly wizard, black-clad forces of death, and Gollum's extended family in a spooky cave. But there's less snogging in Tolkien.
*There was some Latin with the word 'Deus' carved on the birdcage, but I didn't catch the rest of it. If you happen to see the movie, let me know!