This is one of my least favorite Harry Potter films. I am generally less of a fan of the David Yates films, which seem more plot-paint-by-numbers and lose much of the magical whimsy that make the books and early films so fantastic. This movie is probably the greatest offender because it leans so hard into the feeling of foreboding it is trying to create; it just makes it not very pleasant to watch. Even so, there is still a lot to love in this movie too, so here is my breakdown:
- This film does a good job creating an ominous, foreboding mood, including some genuinely terrifying moments like Katie Bell’s curse. Part of what makes the atmosphere so scary is that, for the first time, they really flesh out scenes in the Muggle world, like London and Spinner’s End. That makes the threats no longer feel contained to the fantastical wizarding world.
- Harry is really charming. “Actually, sir, after all the years, I just sort of go with it.” “But I am the chosen one.” The full Felix Felicis scene (including my favorite line of the film: “And the pincers – click, click, click”) – Harry’s comedic time is just spot on.
- Slughorn is affable and likeable, also with excellent comedic timing: “I’d have liked the set.” “All hands on deck, Granger!” “Just in time for dessert – that is, if Belby’s left you any!”
- I generally find Snape in the Yates movies to be not nearly as compelling as he is in the earlier films. This film is no exception but he does have a couple of outstanding moments: “Bella, we musn’t touch what isn’t ours.” in Spinner’s End and delivering Dumbledore’s message at Slughorn’s party. RIP, Alan Rickman; you were one of a kind!
- Helena Bonham Carter once again chews all the scenery as Bellatrix.
- Evana Lynch is endearing as Luna: “I sleepwalk you see; its’ why I wear shoes to bed.”
- I’m not a huge Rupert Grint fan but he does really well as Ron in the love potion sequence.
- The inky aesthetic of all the pensieve memories is really cool.
- This is totally subjective, but I love that they used the Cliffs of Moher as the cave entrance. We were very impressed by those cliffs during our trip to Ireland and anything that links Harry Potter to The Princess Bride is cool in my book!
- The entire film is so dark and washed out that it’s kind of depressing to watch. It’s all grays and greens, peaking in the cave (which features geology reminiscent of Superman’s fortress of solitude for some reason??), which is basically black and white. I know they were trying to support the sense of dark foreboding with the cinematography but they went way too far and it actually feels kind of amateurish – like a film school student applying a blanket filter to every scene indiscriminately.
- As with the previous movie, this one just doesn’t feel very fantastical. The kids wear normal attire most of the time, the Hogwarts Express looks like a modern train, etc. The film is so bad at conveying a sense of magic and wonder that it tries to do it explicitly by having Harry act awed by Dumbledore’s simple act of using a cleaning spell at Slughorn’s hideout – which falls incredibly flat.
- The teen romance plots don’t work for me at all because basically none of the paired actors have any chemistry. The hug at the beginning between Ginny and Harry is super awkward as are their interactions at Christmas. It feels like they were given direction to “be awkward” but no guidance on how to pull it off effectively. Ron and Hermione aren’t much better (“Hermione’s got nice skin, don’t you think?”) and Lavender is way over the top. As opposed to Goblet of Fire, this film feels like it was written by someone who was never a teenager in love. They were written by the same screen writer, though, so I blame Yates.
- The plot additions that did not come from the book really don’t work for me either. The subway scene with Harry and the waitress feels like fanfic and a contrived way to introduce Dumbledore dramatically. Similarly the Christmas attack on the Burrow makes no sense. Both of these seem to be continuations of Yates’s preference for nonsensical setpieces over well developed characters and plots.
- This film features lots of exposition that’s just . . . kind of . . . goofy. Early on, Harry exposits about apparition in a way that is so obviously exposition it practically breaks the fourth wall – and then doesn’t really serve any purpose for the rest of the film. The protagonist trio talk about “Dumbledore maybe getting too old” mere weeks after he epically defeated Voldemort. Cormac McLaggen is set up to be this obnoxious creeper but he’s portrayed by a super handsome / charming model. Slughorn says Harry’s Draught of the Living Death is so perfect that “one drop would kill us all,” but that’s a sleeping potion. McLaggen asks Harry to introduce him to “his friend, Granger” despite having shared a House with her (and just a few dozen others) for the last five years. Neville is randomly serving drinks at Slughorn’s party. After their breakup, Ron is the one making it snow even though Lavender is the angry one – and Lavender is sitting at some other House’s table for some reason. None of these things is particularly egregious; they just demonstrate a carelessness in the filmmaking that wasn’t there in earlier films.
- I have supported over and over again the argument that Harry Potter is a collection of mystery stories dressed up as fantasy. In this film, though, there is no mystery. In the early Borgin and Burke scene, Draco is shown going right for the vanishing cabinet. Then Draco is shown in the Room of Requirement with an identical vanishing cabinet. Although the bird and apple are very poor, confusing devices to show Draco’s progress in mending the cabinet, his work is very telegraphed the entire way.
- Dumbledore has some really awkward, weird, and wholly unnecessary dialogue. “I notice you spend a lot of time with Miss Granger.” “Harry, you need a shave, my friend.” WTF? These come out of nowhere and are completely incongruous with anything relevant to the plot or characters.
- This is related to the poor job this film does more broadly of characterizing the relationship between Dumbledore and Harry. I love in the book how Dumbledore is gently disappointed by Harry’s lack of effort in securing Slughorn’s memory and how abashed Harry is about it – but there’s none of that dynamic here.
- Speaking of Slughorn, while I enjoy Jim Broadbent’s portrayal here, it is wildly out of character from the book version. This Slughorn is unbelievable as a Slytherin – much more of a Hufflepuff.
- The young Tom Riddle of this film isn’t nearly as creepy or commanding / threatening as the character in the book.
Again, there is a lot to like in this film and I will never skip it during a marathon. There is plenty of “meh” too, though, and I rarely find myself specifically in the mood for this one – which I do for most of the others.