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Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

By  · Published on July 9th, 2009

This isn’t easy to write. I say that for several reasons, the first and foremost being the nature of the film – part six of an octilogy. Is it possible to divorce this movie from the other installments to let it stand or fall on its own merits or failings? Or it is better to discuss it within the greater context of the series? I admit, I’m at a loss.

But I’m not surprised to be at a loss. Going into the screening room last night, I wasn’t sure whether I’d be praising Half-Blood Prince to the castle towers or shaking my head in disappointment – but I knew that no matter what, it would be overwhelming. As for the giant praise or crushing disappointment, the result was actually somewhere in the middle.

With Lord Voldemort out in the open, his Death Eaters are wreaking havoc on the wizard world and the real world alike. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) have transcended the student-teacher relationship to become good friends, working together to bring retired professor Horace Slughorn (Jom Broadbent) to Hogwart’s in order to uncover a dark secret he’s kept hidden for years – a secret that may be the key to destroying Voldemort. However, with the fate of the world at stake, all of the students at Hogwart’s – including Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) – are dealing with the much stronger force of teenage hormones and young love.

It would be disingenuous of me to claim that I wasn’t completely psyched for this film. I’ve been a Potter fan ever since the first movie (after only a year and half earlier claiming to a close friend and children’s bookstore owner that the first book was terrible and wouldn’t go anywhere), and it’s been a fantastic journey to watch these characters grow up and grow together. That journey has been augmented by the range of directors and crew that have worked on the projects, each bringing a unique vision to the table. Oddly enough, even though David Yates has returned for his second Potter flick (his first being 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) it seems like another director has yet again set on making his mark on the series.

Most of that is owed to the fact that Yates is still evolving as a director, and the rest of it is owed to the marked difference in tone between the two books that he’s adapted so far. Where Order was shot almost like a gritty documentary film (amidst the sweeping shots), Half-Blood Prince is almost noir-like in its tone. It instantly dives into the depths of the struggle facing the world – specifically with a gorgeous scene in which three Death Eaters destroy the Millennium Bridge in London while people flee for their lives. It’s never egregious, but it’s clear that the film has no qualms with very real danger, no problem threatening the lives of its characters, no issue with placing well-loved characters in mortal peril.

I realize that that’s been a common theme throughout the films, but there’s something far more severe and murderous about this film than the fantastical dangers of the first few. Trolls and dragons are one thing, but a crazed witch who wants nothing more than to rip the soul right out of your body is another.

Those dark moments are woven between a greater story of romance – and all the fist-clenching frustration that comes with it – wherein all the characters seem to rise above what they once were. Ginny (Bonnie Wright) in particular shines through, building on the power she gained in the last film to become an independent young woman that proves more complex with every scene. If the flirtation between her and Harry has been cute in the past, it explodes into a heavy tension that stands steadfast between them in every scene they share. It’s a similar story for Ron and Hermione, and it stands as a testament to how these young actors have exceeded their talent-level, rising to the occasion that this storyline demands.

The dark-side of character growth comes from Tom Felton who has been tethered to a very one-dimensional Draco Malfoy in the other films. In the same way that the character has been tapped to do a great task for The Dark Lord, Felton has been tapped to take on a lot more than he has in the past. Luckily, Felton goes above and beyond what’s required of him, creating a truly rounded character that finally shows the complicated nature of what has otherwise been a hollow sub-antagonist. We get the other side of the bully. While he’s cowardly and full of anger, Malfoy is relatable for the first time in the series.

Unfortunately, that story demand does lead to two specific flaws. The first being a tendency toward feeling a bit bi-polar. It’s clear that efforts were made to make the film cohesive, but those efforts fall noticeably short considering just how starkly different the two tones are. At certain points it feels like a clever romantic comedy was shoved together with a gritty thriller. Most of the time it works, but a significant amount of times it doesn’t.

The second problem is that with so many characters stepping up, a few that audiences are familiar with have to take a backseat, and the characters that are shown have to share a finite (albeit gigantic) run-time with each other. While the minimization of certain characters, and the complete lack of others (who will not be named) might not bother someone who hasn’t seen the other films – they will be burdened by something far more stifling: the confusion at figuring out a movie that refuses to deliver exposition. New characters (like Fenrir Greyback) are never introduced and some new situations (like two main Order members dating) are never explained. I found that incredibly refreshing, and the movie certainly stands on its own, but as with any universe as complex and alien as any fantasy, even I found myself wishing that I had watched Order of the Phoenix as a refresher course.

As far as the look of the film, you couldn’t ask for a more beautifully shot feature. The fact that the story is character-driven is not lost on Yates or cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Amelie). Amidst the sweeping shots of the castle and its grounds are a plethora of shots that add as much to the characters as the actors do. Pulling in tight as Harry comforts Hermione, marginalizing characters as they’re forced to watch the person they love in another’s arms, Hiding Malfoy behind walls and windows as he attempts a dark task that’s been given to him by Voldemort. The visuals are so moving that you’ll start to think you’re seated on the stone steps of Hogwart’s watching the characters laugh, argue and fall in love.

The other aspect of filmmaking that was improved upon (as if there was much room for it in the first place) was the score. I’ve always been impressed by the music created for these films, but what Nicholas Hooper has done here is transcendent.

The acting has also improved. While it’s clear that the younger talent still has a few things to learn (and they are learning), the veteran cast is astonishingly good. Maggie Smith carries herself brilliantly, somehow able to express both outrage and concern at the same time while channeling everyone on the planet’s grandmother. Michael Gambon, of course, is at home building and reshaping a Dumbledore that continues to become more enigmatic as we learn more about him.

But far and away the standouts are Alan Rickman and the newly-added Jim Broadbent. The way Rickman plays Snape in this film makes it seem like he was holding back all these years. It makes me excited to wonder what he’ll be able to do in the upcoming films. He’s been more than fantastic in each film, but with even more to do, he proves again why he’s one of the best actors in the business.

And then there’s Jim Broadbent who deserves his own paragraph. In a pitch-perfect bit of casting, Broadbent is the breath of fresh air that this film needed. Without him, it would have felt far more cumbersome. He brings a fascinating lightness to a role that seems tailor-made for his brand of brilliance. His Slughorn is cranky, self-centric, shallow and hateful – but he’s also incredibly endearing, lonely, compassionate and even loving. Broadbent takes all of that complexity and keeps it just below the surface, becoming the gravitational pull of each scene he’s in. In so many words, Jim Broadbent is perfect.

If Broadbent is the cornerstone performance, Radcliffe’s is the pinnacle. Make no mistake – this is Daniel Radcliffe’s movie. His serious dramatic work is still shaky, but the greatest addition to the character of Harry is a solid sense of humor that he seems to have gained sometime when the audience wasn’t looking. Radcliffe’s laugh lines land squarely, making it obvious that the actor has a future in comedic roles if he wants them.

That humor is important not only for character, but also important to create a sense of worth and meaning for the entire world. It’s the moments between Ron, Hermione, Harry and Ginny that give a sense of what the crew are fighting for. At the end of the last film, Harry intimates that the group’s advantage over the dark forces is that they have true friendships to defend. It’s clear that those friendships are growing, becoming deeper, and in turn becoming more important as the focus of what these characters have to lose. As the relationships become richer, they also become more fragile and raise the stakes should they be lost.

Sure, there are a few misteps in the story telling even if it’s laudable that Yates and company would tackle such a dynamic and varied story. Hopefully, they will be able to strike a little cleaner balance with the last films, but over all I left the screening of Half-Blood Prince with a sense of urgency. It was a sense that something huge is happening and unraveling before an international audience of movie goers. We’ve seen the evolution of the series from children’s films to what they are now – beautiful pieces of cinematic art. If you were among the ones that felt Yates had elevated the series with his last film, you’re in for an even higher level of artistic merit from the man who will (by the end) have directed more Potter film than anyone else. With that revolving door of directorial visions, it seemed odd that Yates would be chosen again for the last two, but his work on Half-Blood Prince made me realize why, and I have every confidence that he and the rest of the cast and crew will deliver something spectacular for the final chapters.

I found that incredibly refreshing, and the movie certainly stands on its own, but as with any universe as complex and alien as any fantasy, even I found myself wishing that I had watched Order of the Phoenix as a refresher course.

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