“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is a masterpiece six films in the making. It is the culmination of six books, four directors, scores of actors who have devoted the last decade of their lives to playing a single character, and teams of artisans bringing J.K. Rowling’s beloved series to life. It may be my least favorite of the books but the latest film in the series is easily its best yet and one of the best movies of the year.
I say “least favorite” of the books because plot-wise, it’s a bit of a screeching halt to the momentum built up from “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”. It’s more of a detour, choosing to lounge about with the characters as they go through various personal trials and tribulations while the any progression in the main plot is to provide all of Voldemort’s backstory through Harry and Dumbledore collecting various memories and trying to unlock the mystery of defeating the dark wizard. It’s not really fair to call it a disappointment since the books, with the heart-wrenching wait between each one, built up unfair expectations (although I remain impressed at Rowling’s stunning conclusion for “Deathly Hallows”), and as a book, it’s a bit too roundabout and it’s not until you remove those expectations that you realize that this is the calm before the storm.
By contrast, the film of “Half-Blood” prince opens with a storm (of Death Eaters) and shifts seamlessly between the necessary progression of the story and the highs and lows of young love. Due to the wonders of adaptation, we received a condensed version of the driving story of Dumbledore and Harry attempting to recover a vital memory of Voldemort from new potions teacher Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) while a malevolent Draco Malfoy manages to bring new threats to Hogwarts, the last safe place in an increasingly dangerous world. But just when it feels like the film is becoming too brooding or hopeless, it hops to lighthearted humor and the main characters dealing with the discoveries of love they’re not able to express whether it’s out of fear, anger, or general teenage angst that never feels angsty.
That alone is a massive victory for “Half-Blood Prince”. Those who have survived the heartsickness of teenage love tend to look back on it and laugh at the emotions that, at the time, felt bigger than all the concerns of the whole world. Watching this behavior in others, it’s easy to lapse into smirking amusement. But in “Half-Blood Prince”, we’re transported back to those emotions and desperately want to reach into the screen, put a hand on the shoulder of a love-lorn Hermoine or Harry and tell them that it will be alright. This wouldn’t happen if “Half-Blood Prince” was the first “Harry Potter” film to hit screens. It wouldn’t work if we hadn’t watched these actors play these characters since 2001.
Every performance in this film, no matter how minor, is an absolute joy. There’s no feeling cheated or wishing the script included more of Supporting Character X. Every actor knows his or her character inside and out and they are no longer giving performances; they inhabit the role completely. This film belongs to the trio of Harry, Hermoine, and Ron and I remember years ago when there were discussions about whether these actors would have to be recast if they outgrew their characters’ ages. I look back on those discussions and laugh because no recasting could compare to the payoff of watching these actors mature. Rupert Grint IS Ron Weasley. Emma Watson IS Hermoine Granger. Daniel Radcliffe IS Harry Potter. They are no longer chasing Rowling’s words but rather have shaped and molded these characters into people of our world. That is not to disparage Rowling’s writing but what she accomplished in words, these astonishing young actors have accomplished through performance and dedication. While the cynics may snidely wonder who among these three will transition to other roles beyond the “Harry Potter” franchise, we should all be pulling for them to continue acting because it’s clear they have a lot to offer.
Special notice must also be given to Tom Felton’s performance as Draco Malfoy. Other fellow students get their moments, notably Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), and Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), but Felton is an entirely different entity in this film. Previously relegated to more of a comic-relief foil, Felton summons all of the pathos and pain of the character and makes real Rowling’s message that as slimy, snobby, and ugly as someone can behave, that doesn’t necessarily make them evil. Watching Draco run up against a line he doesn’t have the strength to cross, faced with the culmination of his cowardice and fear and weakness, Felton’s performance is absolutely captivating.
Like their younger counterparts, the elder supporting members of the cast have also grown into their roles. While they used to be the reliable standbys as the younger actors found their way, they now have to hold their own in every scene and they clearly relish the challenge. As those who are familiar with the story know (and if you haven’t read the book, then just stop reading and see the movie), “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” provides a crescendo to the characters of Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) and neither disappoints.
I have to admit great trepidation going into the film as I’ve always found Gambon’s Dumbledore lacking. He was always missing the warmth and kindness that the late Richard Harris brought to the role in the first two films. This time, however, his emotional coldness finds a place as we see Dumbledore as a man resigned to fate. He knows he won’t live to see the final battle and that the most important thing he can do with his remaining time is to serve as a guide to Harry and prepare the young wizard for what’s to come. And through this coldness, Gambon’s Dumbledore finally finds a heart. His voice is no longer remote, but reassuring. He even gets to crack an occasional joke, which is a welcome reprieve from the dour Dumbledore of the past few films.
Alan Rickman has been perfectly cast as Severus Snape ever since the first film, and like Felton, he too had stumbled into a bit of a comedic relief role. Here, he brings the full gravity and strength of Snape and hearing every word drip from his lips is mesmerizing. It’s a performance aided, in no small part, to knowing where his character ends in “Deathly Hallows”. It’s a foreknowledge that all of the actors possess (I’d be surprised at any who hadn’t read the final book), but it provides an incomparable gravity to Rickman’s performance.
The film’s newest star is Oscar-winning actor Jim Broadbent as potions-professor Horace Slughorn and while other actors are playing at the culmination of six years of building a character, Broadbent shows up like he’s been there the whole time. He’s completely at home in the role and knows how to perfectly balance Slughorn’s buffoonery as well as the unbearable guilt in how he contributed to the transformation of Tom Riddle into Voldemort. It’s a credit to both Rowling’s writing and to screenwriter Steve Kloves (and for “Order of the Phoenix”, Michael Goldenberg) that they can write such clearly developed characters and have actors like Imelda Staunton, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, and many others come in and play the role to perfection.
And yet, despite its expansive and talented cast, there is another star that has also grown with the franchise: Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Developed through multiple directors and scores of production designers, costumers, cinematographers, and composers, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is a technical marvel. While fans have joked over the years that they wish they could attend the fictional castle, it is now a place. In “Half-Blood Prince”, Hogwarts, without question, exists. It is not to product of millions of dollars and thousands upon thousands of hours of work but magic made real.
Bruno Delbonnel makes his debut on “Half-Blood Prince” and turns every shot into a painting. Fans who are holding out till all the films are out as a Blu-Ray box set will be feeling the pain with this movie as Production Designer Stuart Craig has crammed each frame with visual treats and Delbonnel not only captures it all but manages to evoke the mood of every moment with a texture that doesn’t feel overbearing but rather that Hogwarts is always mirroring the emotions of its characters. Add to that Jany Temime’s gorgeous costuming (aside from assorted party scenes and regular casual wear, Draco Malfoy is one smooth-looking motherfucker with clothes that try to sell him as a darker figure than he truly is) and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is a visual feast.
Nicholas Hooper also deserves special credit for his score. While previous “Potter” films have one or two stand-out tracks, Hooper goes all out and you’ll be trying to pick which is your favorite, from the light-hearted compositions of young love to the dark gothic orchestrations of the impending war closing in on our characters.
All of it is held together by director David Yates. Christopher Columbus got the ball rolling and Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell each did their own thing, but this series, when all is said and done, will belong to Yates and for that, I couldn’t be happier. He is the man assigned with bringing this franchise to its conclusion and if this was the kind of work he managed to turn in with “Half-Blood Prince” then I get goosebumps thinking of what wizardry he’ll weave with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”. He has brought this series to its fullest realization, managing to make it a world no longer slavishly devoted to the books yet never so outlandish that it ceases to be recognizably “Harry Potter”.
Only the most thick-headed of die-hard fans would criticize this film for having to deal with the necessary reduction required of any adaptation. If you need any more convincing that this is “Harry Potter” perfected, I will leave you with this:
The most famous moment and the biggest “spoiler” of the series is Snape killing Dumbledore. It’s a moment so grand and shocking that it has almost become comedic and has no emotional resonance as it has become the prime example of the an unforgettable moment rendered meaningless through mockery and infamy. But when it happens in the movie, my eyes started watering. I knew it was coming but by this point I was at the edge of my seat wondering how Yates would pull it off and when it happened, I saw that Yates knew what everyone else will know when they see this movie: that “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is not merely the sixth installment in a franchise but the sixth chapter in an epic story that comes from the strength and effort of all that has come before.
Rating —– A