Thankfully, with each new Harry Potter film, I have a thoroughly enjoyable experience while being challenged to reflect on a key spiritual or theological insight in a fresh new way. The latest release, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, does not disappoint.
The most recent film, obviously, picks up right where the former, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, left off. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has just won a significant skirmish with the Dark Lord and has even been thrust into muggle spotlight, which leads him to internal conflicts that unfortunately don’t flesh out beyond an initial confusion over whether or not to meet a pretty young girl for a date. Meanwhile, Voldemort is growing in power and infiltrating Hogwarts in unprecedented ways. As the film progresses, Harry and Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) begin to uncover how Voldemort, formerly Tom Riddle, has been able to return so strongly despite his defeat years earlier. To do so, they must explore both Tom’s memories and the memories of Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), a new/old Hogwarts professor who was especially close to Tom when he was a student there. Like all of its predecessors, The Half-Blood Prince ends on a significant cliffhanger that should have non-readers of the series clamoring for the next book.
While I am not sure whether or not this is my favorite Harry Potter film, I do believe it is one of the most visually stunning of the lot. The cinematography in this most recent installment is unparalleled in the rest of the series, as is the artistic direction/design. The scenes in which Harry and Dumbledore delve into the memories are especially beautiful as settings emerge from what appear to be drops of ink descending deeply into a pool of water. One of the latter scenes in which Harry and Dumbledore discover the horcrux is reminiscent of Gandalf’s battle against the Balrog in the The Lord of the Rings series.
Both of these scenes point to two significant themes in both this film and the entire series. In The Half-Blood Prince, memory and memories play a most important role. In one scene, Dumbledore tells Harry, “Without this memory, we are blind.” Over the past several months, for one of my comprehensive exams, I thought extensively about memory, and especially how we are to remember wrongs inflicted upon us or that we inflicted on others. How do we remember? What do we do with our individual and collective memories? How do we hold memories of successes and failures in tension? Diana Butler-Bass’ recent book, A People’s History of Christianity, is very much about the necessity of remembering those Christians who have gone before us in faithful ways, answering Jesus’ call to “Go and do thou likewise.” Yet she holds these memories in tension with the memories of the ways in which Christians failed to uphold this call. Without these memories, we are blind, or at best extremely short-sighted.
Secondly, not just in The Half-Blood Prince but throughout the series, we see examples of self-sacrifice and service in really significant, effective ways. In one scene, Dumbledore tells Harry, “Once again, I must ask too much of you.” Yet Harry willingly obliges. Dumbledore’s request, however, is not one-sided, because finally, here, he gives too much of himself. While I am leery of doing so, I can finally refer to Dumbledore as a Christ-like figure as he exhibits strength in weakness. The film presents sacrifice, as a result, on two levels: the first involves giving, or trying to give, more than we initially think we can, while the second involves a much more complicated recognition that in our weakness lies power. The ability and power to not react violently in the face of violence is, ironically, the most effective “force” in combatting evil.
I can see how some viewers might not like this film as much as some of the recent installments. I felt like this was the weakest films in terms of plot or narrative. As a non-reader of the series, I have always felt like the films did a great job of conveying the stories in a way that made me feel included. This was the first film in which I felt like a true outsider to the series. Nevertheless, the stunning cinematography and special effects kept me interested long enough to latch on to some of these running themes. Surprisingly, the film is also full of humor, which helps break down some of those barriers while brightening up a rather dark film.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (153 mins.) is rated PG-13 for scary images, some violence, and mild language and is in theaters everywhere.