Today’s children and teenagers have greater powers of concentration than is generally realised. How else can you explain the extraordinary success of the Harry Potter phenomenon, especially the films? After all, the screen adaptations are rather slow-moving and talky, especially compared to other blockbusters. Indeed, apart from the special effects, it is hard to believe that, compared to the Transformers franchise, the Potter films and products are of the same era.
The Potter phenomenon also seems to indicate that millions of film-going children have deeply traditional tastes. Kids everywhere, from urban ghettoes to South Asian villages, are entranced by J K Rowling’s vision of a boarding school steeped in history, hierarchy and formal ceremony, even though it represents the antithesis of “progressive” educational ideology.
For that matter, just about every value celebrated by the books and films is the opposite of those considered culturally correct by today’s “right-on” baby-boomer establishment. It may be no coincidence that the magical world, with Hogwarts at the centre, is a place where the very old and very young happily co-exist, without much interference by parents or indeed by anyone of middle age.
Certainly the wizard world is an luxuriantly Victorian or Edwardian one. It is not just the school with its gothic towers, stone staircases and great Oxbridge style hall; it is the steam locomotives pulling lovely old-fashioned Pullman cars with proper carriages, the Dickensian shops of Diagon Alley, the libraries with leather-bound volumes instead of computers, and the elegant brass alchemical instruments. Being transported to it on the Hogwarts express as it puffs through the Highlands is one of the real pleasures of the Potter films.
The franchise is unique in one other important way. It is so successful that the movies increasingly function like episodes in a TV series — the filmmakers can safely assume that everyone in their target audience has seen the previous films and/or read the books. They do not have to bother with explaining references to previous incidents in the saga. This saves time, but it also means that if you are not a devotee you are likely to get lost and perhaps even a bit bored once the charm of the sets and the special effects has worn off.
The latest film in the series is directed by David Yates and written by Steven Kloves, who has authored all the Potter film scripts except Order of the Phoenix. Yates and his team deliver several visually gorgeous sequences, some exhilarating action, especially on the quidditch field, and couple of scary scenes that could come from real, grown-up horror flicks. However, their Hogwarts not only lacks moving staircases and semi-transparent ghosts, its formerly rich colours seem faded as if it is already becoming memory for older students like Harry, or as if a more comfortable era is coming to an end.
In general, The Half-Blood Prince is darker than its predecessors —- as perhaps befitting the age of the fully adolescent main characters and the audience that has grown up with the films — and eschews slapstick comic relief.
It also includes more teenage romance, with every corner of Hogwarts now occupied by smooching young couples blissfully unaware that the Dark Lord’s forces threaten the existence of the school. Accordingly, there is a burgeoning romance between Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and Ginny Weasely (Bonny Wright), and Emma Watson’s Hermione continues inexplicably to be attracted to Ron Weasely (Rupert Grint), even though he lacks looks, charm, wit or any other quality likely to attract a beautiful 17-year-old girl.
Sadly, the weakest link in the Half Blood Prince — besides confusing illogicalities in the plot — is Radcliffe. It is not his fault that Harry Potter is not a particularly interesting character, compared to, say, Hermione. But he seems to be one of those child actors whose powers of expression have decreased with the onset of puberty.
As usual the film boasts supporting performances from famous British actors, led by Michael Gambon. Jim Broadbent is present as a teacher whose memories may contain a fearful secret. Helena Bonham Carter, born to play witches, is only briefly on screen, but once again Alan Rickman makes every phrase count as the sinister Mr Snape who or may not be working on the dark side. The film comes to life whenever he is on screen.