Directed by: David Yates (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Alan Rickman
I am fully conscious of the possibility that I may have somewhat overrated David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This is due to a variety of reasons that are not related to the film itself, but rather are grounded in the timing of its appearance. It is simply impossible not to find a degree of delight in being confronted with a film that’s almost exactly the same length as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but where I was never bored and didn’t spend the entire time feeling as if I were being bombarded with stupidity run riot on an alarming scale. That’s the recent past. The looming future was represented by a trailer for The Twilight Saga: New Moon—perhaps the most unintentionally hilarious (“Paper cut!”) and stupid-looking promo ever conceived—that plays just prior to this latest Harry Potter opus. Bracketed by Transformers and The Twilight Saga, Half-Blood Prince comes across as pure genius.
The truth is that I admired and enjoyed Half-Blood Prince more than any of the other series entries except for Alfonso Cuarón’s deliriously clever Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). And I say that as someone who has liked all the films and been pleased by the fact that I’ve never felt my intelligence was being insulted while watching them. I also appreciate the fact that the films—though changing in tone as befits the arc of the overall story—have maintained a level of quality unique to a series of this many films. This one is certainly no exception, and, in many ways, is the most intelligent film yet.
The story this round has two points of focus: Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) finding (and taking advantage of) a potions book that once belonged to someone only identified as the Half-Blood Prince, and then discovering and attempting to undo the source of the evil Voldemort’s power. There are other issues as well—many concerning the increasingly complex romantic feelings of the series’ now 17-year-old protagonists. A certain amount of grumbling has registered on this score—especially owing to things of a more magical nature that were apparently left out of the film version of the book—but as a non-reader of the series, I wasn’t bothered by this. Moreover, I was impressed by the fact that, although much of this is played lightly and humorously, it felt real in a way this sort of thing rarely does. There is a genuine sense of the painfulness of such romances and the deadly seriousness with which teenagers take them. This is far removed from the cardboard goopiness of Twilight or the “don’t get out much, do you?” aura that clings to George Lucas’ every attempt at depicting young romance.
Somewhat surprisingly, there’s not much in the way of a big action set piece in the film—a daring move in a film aimed primarily at a young audience. It certainly doesn’t bother me that we’ve been given a movie that relies more on dialogue and frisson-inducing revelations than action. And it doesn’t bother me that the film (and presumably the book) closes on an emotional and somber highpoint rather than a “big ending,” especially since the emotional punch is nearly the equal of the end of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). It’s impressive that these aspects didn’t appear to make the largely youthful crowd with whom I saw the film restless, but may have much to do with how invested they are in the story by this point.
Another plus for the film lies in the relative calmness with which the bigger “effect” moments are handled. Yes, there are lots of CGI effects—nearly all of which are top-notch—but they’re rarely used in a purely show-off manner (something the first two entries were the most guilty of). Generally, the effects aren’t played up. Some of them are no more than basic effects work, as in a scene where Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) sets a house to rights, commenting, “That was fun,” which it was and which was the point. A large part of the CGI here is used in the creation of mood, and to create a sense of the ominous. By the end of the film, Hogwarts School is looking more and more sinister—its turrets resembling the German expressionist menace of Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927). The suggestion seems to be that the series is becoming the horror film that was always at the story’s core.
The most impressive aspect of the enterprise—not overlooking the ever-more assured playing of the young leads, the rich performances of the terrific cast of British character actors, or the solid filmmaking craft—is that Half-Blood Prince actually makes me look forward to the final entries with genuine anticipation. For the sixth film to pull that off is magic of its own kind. Rated PG for scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality.