Harry Potter shows his "new" textbook to his friends Ron and Hermione.

Harry Potter shows his "new" textbook to his friends Ron and Hermione.

The movie adaptation of J. K. Rowling‘s sixth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is the most serious and intense of the series so far.  The forces of evil are beginning to attack openly, and the film ends quite somberly with the death of a beloved character and the sense that things are about to get worse.

Director David Yates does a good job for the second movie in a row of bringing Rowling’s magical world to life in a way that fits the mood of the story.  The greatest strength of the movie is in the interaction between the characters– the students and teachers of Hogwarts that we have come to know over the course of the series.  Yates wisely includes a good amount of humor in the scenes between Harry, Ron, and Hermione, which helps to keep the grim tone from totally overwhelming the movie.

Overall, I still count the fifth film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, as my favorite of the movies so far.  It had a coherent focus and message, and a real sense of accomplishment by the heroes.  It may not be fair to judge the movies the same way, as they play different roles in the overall scheme of the series.  Half-Blood Prince is less suited to stand alone, as it is mostly a buildup for the conflict about to take place in the last two films, and as a result, it leaves a lot of things unresolved.

Still, I think some things about Half-Blood Prince could have been handled better.  My main criticism of the film is that it feels rushed.  This is likely a result of each Harry Potter novel being longer than the last, and therefore harder to condense into a single movie.  (That’s one reason why the seventh and final novel is being made into two movies.)  At times, the plot seems to press forward as if it is ticking through a list of the major events that need to take place, and there isn’t enough time to explain their significance or to give the audience a good sense of how much time has passed.

At this point, I should probably come clean and admit that I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books– my familiarity with the series comes entirely from the movies (and from a family who are all huge fans of the books!)  So I’m looking just at what I know from the movies in this review.  You are invited to discount any huge mistakes I make in Harry Potter knowledge, and to disregard any complaints that are based on my ignorance of the books– I certainly remember being on the other side of this when people who hadn’t read The Lord of the Rings complained about misunderstanding things in Peter Jackson’s films that were much more clear in the books!

Warning:  there are spoilers ahead!

The central plot in Half-Blood Prince is about two young men, each of whom is recruited for a secret mission:  Harry Potter is asked by Dumbledore to convince an old professor to divulge information about one of his former pupils, who became the dark lord Voldemort.  Jim Broadbent (who also played a Professor in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) turns in the film’s best performance as the distracted Professor Horace Slughorn– he manages to be at once amusing, annoying, kind, deceitful, ashamed, and incredibly sad.

Meanwhile, Draco Malfoy is sent by far less forgiving masters to help Voldemort’s forces to infiltrate Hogwarts.  Despite the fact that he has few lines, Tom Felton‘s performance as Draco is another standout role in this movie.  Draco’s decisions and those of his family have led him to a place he does not want to be, and he can find no way out.  His demeanor of smug confidence cracks to reveal anger, fear, loneliness, and ultimately despair.  It is to Felton’s credit that Draco actually becomes a sympathetic character in this movie.

Some neat directing decisions help to underscore Draco’s impossible situation– he spends most of the movie walking alone through deserted corridors.  In one of them, two birds sit in a tiny cage which is itself inside a larger cage.  A nice way to get across the feeling of being utterly trapped.

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint continue to do a splendid job as Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley as they grow along with their roles.  Each of them gets the chance to show a lot of range.  There’s plenty of humor in Ron and Hermione’s rocky relationship– Ron’s cluelessness and self-consciousness about how to behave toward Hermione leads to a fight between the two that ends up having a ripple effect as the two begin choosing dates to spite the other.  Grint provides many of the movie’s funniest moments between Ron’s bravado as a Quidditch player and his dazed stupor after becoming the victim of a love potion.

Radcliffe and Watson have a nice quiet scene when Harry and Hermione share their feelings of heartbreak with each other as good friends.  Harry has feelings for Ginny Weasley, but she’s got a boyfriend, and Ron keeps managing to make Harry feel even worse by talking about how uncomfortable he is seeing someone kissing his sister.  Bonnie Wright, who plays Ginny, gets a lot more to do in this movie, which is nice.

You can probably tell that a lot of the lighter scenes in Half-Blood Prince have to do with relationships, so if you don’t like that aspect of the movies, you’ll probably not like this one a whole lot!  Personally, I found this plotline a lot more agreeable than the “who’s asking whom to the dance” story in The Goblet of Fire, because that seemed to be about everyone making themselves feel miserable for no good reason.  Possibly a good representation of junior high, but not something I enjoy reliving.  With Half-Blood Prince, while I found myself wondering if high school was ever this much of a soap opera for anyone, at least this time, there are more smiles to go along with the tears.

Some of the characters really don’t get much to do– Neville Longbottom, for example, only has a couple of lines– but overall, it’s nice to see the familiar characters we’ve come to know over the course of the movie series.  I was happy to see my favorite character, Luna Lovegood, get a few good moments in this movie.  She saves Harry’s bacon at the beginning of the movie thanks to her perceptiveness and remains a good friend without getting caught up in the social silliness.  Evanna Lynch continues to prove herself an inspired casting choice.  I really liked Luna’s Gryffindor hat for the Quidditch match!

These lighter scenes are surely welcome, as the the entire movie has an air of foreboding about it.  It begins with an attack by Voldemort’s forces on the “real-world” London, and Professor Dumbledore’s yearly orientation speech at Hogwarts has none of the cheer of the prior movies, instead being a warning about the danger that can come from without or within (as it did with Hogwarts student Tom Riddle, who became the dark lord Voldemort).

There seemed to be a distant pounding noise in the background of that scene that reappeared in later scenes (in one case, from the sound of Quidditch balls being thrown and caught).  If this was intentional, it was a nice touch, even if it did give me a headache by the end of the movie.  Then again, it’s possible I was just hearing noise from the next screen over playing Transformers II or something.

Even though both sides are mostly still trying to operate in secret through Harry’s and Draco’s missions, evil begins to strike more openly in this movie– in one scene, Voldemort’s forces attack the Weasley residence (which for some reason looks completely different in this movie).  The leader of the attackers is the evil witch Bellatrix Lestrange– Helena Bonham Carter continues to play the character colorfully, showing a reckless glee in causing destruction.

My biggest complaint is that events such as this come and go without much explanation as to their significance.  A lot of this is possibly because we won’t know their significance until later on in the story, but we still need to get the sense that the characters have come to terms with what these events mean to them, or the audience can be left behind.  When a new scene begins, it can be difficult to tell if it’s taking place immediately after the last one, later the same day, or months later.  The movie can provide visual clues as to the passage of time (for instance, when it’s suddenly winter), but I was at times left wondering whether it mattered that it was months later– had anything important happened in between?

I think the movie’s biggest misstep falls into this category, and it actually wouldn’t have been that difficult to avoid with the addition of a few lines.  When he begins taking Professor Slughorn’s potions class, Harry Potter comes across an old textbook labeled “Property of the Half-Blood Prince.”  The book’s notes end up giving Harry all of the answers he needs to ace Slughorn’s class (which proves valuable in trying to get into his good graces and learn the information about Voldemort that Dumbledore sent Harry to find out).

Throughout the movie, Harry is suspicious of Draco Malfoy’s actions, making accusations that he can’t back up.  Both Harry’s friends and Professor Snape tell him that he is letting his hatred of Malfoy cloud his judgment.  (And even though Harry’s accusation ends up being right, the others are also right that Harry is too eager to get back at Draco.)

Harry finally confronts Draco, finding him weeping in the bathroom.  Draco lashes out and starts attacking Harry, instigating a magical battle between the two.  Then Harry uses a spell that he found in the Half-Blood Prince’s notes under the label “for enemies.”  It is a foolish choice, as he doesn’t know what the spell does.  He finds Draco Malfoy lying unconscious, bleeding severely, and is aghast at what he has done.  We see Snape reviving Draco.

I was certainly expecting there to be serious consequences for this– Harry could very easily have killed Draco had Snape not been there.  But the next scene finds a shaken Harry back in his room with his friends, deciding that he has to get rid of the book.  Well, yes– I can see why he would want to get rid of the book.  But I was expecting Snape or someone else to come after Harry.  Was this scene taking place before that could happen, or was Harry’s use of the spell being kept secret for some reason?  I was waiting for an answer, but it never came.  This was too important a plot point to skip.

I found out from my family that, as I expected, there were consequences in the book for Harry because of his use of the spell– he was given detention with Snape with Dumbledore’s full approval– not only was this unpleasant, it also meant the end of his Quidditch season.  Even if there wasn’t time to show these events in the movie, they should at least have referred to them; otherwise it seems like Harry can get away with anything.

The end of the movie provides the most intense sequence so far in the Harry Potter movies, as Harry accompanies Dumbledore on an extremely dangerous errand to destroy an artifact of Voldemort’s.  This includes a gutwrenching scene in which Dumbledore tells Harry he must force the professor to drink all of a poisonous potion, no matter how much he begs for Harry to stop.  (I couldn’t help but be reminded of another bitter cup that One drank every drop of in order to save others.)

The final confrontation in the tower between Dumbledore and Draco Malfoy contains the spoiler that is next to impossible to avoid even if you try to, which is that it is Snape who ultimately kills Dumbledore when Draco balks at the task.  I knew about this ages ago, but I still found the scene effective.  More great performances here– I liked the way that Michael Gambon played Dumbledore as still very off-balance from his ordeal with the poison but not in the least afraid.

My brother told me that in Rowling’s original novel, Harry is forced to be a witness to Dumbledore’s death while magically frozen in place and invisible.  The way the movie plays it is much more powerful– Harry is able to act but was instructed by Dumbledore to do nothing– that certainly gave Radcliffe a better opportunity to react to the emotion of the scene.

The ending of the movie provides an emotional kick to the gut, between Dumbledore’s death and the villains’ crazed celebration.  Nicholas Hooper‘s choral score for that moment is heartbreaking.  My theater audience became stone silent after that scene.  We see the forces of good, all of the characters we have come to love, using their wands to make a small patch of sunlight in a sky that has otherwise gone completely gray.  I definitely left the theater with a heavy heart and the feeling that things would get worse for Harry and his friends before they got better.

So, overall, I would have to say that this movie does an acceptable job of translating Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to the screen.  I can’t rank it as my favorite of the movies (that would be The Order of the Phoenix) due partly to its rushed feel and partly to the fact that its ending carries with it a considerable emotional toll.

Thanks for reading!

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