Entering their sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) are again searching for answers in the latest installment of novelist J.K. Rowling’s indestructible series: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. After directing the last film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, director David Yates and returning screenwriter Steve Kloves—who took a break on Phoenix—have fully realized the drama and the magic within Rowling’s pages. No Potter book has been translated this well to the screen since director Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
After escaping the clutches of Lord Voldemort at the end of Phoenix, Harry is back still attending classes, somehow, in between spying on teachers and students alike, playing Quidditch, going to parties, and getting closer to the truth about what his future holds. The film starts out differently than the others, with a sense of urgency and no sunshine to be found in the sky. Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) needs Harry’s help with a former teacher, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), who is brought back to Hogwarts in search of a powerful memory that Dumbledore knows he has but has not discovered. Slughorn may hold an essential memory that could contain answers to Lord Voldemort—or his younger self, Tom Riddle. Dumbledore first met Riddle at an orphanage, shown in a haunting chalk-white flashback, and knew from the first moment he saw the young boy that he was bad news. (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin does his best Damien impression.) Dumbledore tried helping Riddle control his magic and encouraged him to come to Hogwarts, only to be later duped by Riddle, who instead gave in to his dark passions.
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Instructed by Dumbledore to get closer to Slughorn, Harry and Ron both show up at Slughorn’s potions class without a textbook and are told they need one. With one new copy left, the two fight for the newer copy of an advanced portions book. Much to Harry’s disappointment, Ron gets a crisp new book as Harry takes an older shabby-looking textbook that has been inscribed in the back by “the Half-Blood Prince.” The book has notes written on every page and clues that help Harry excel in the class and become a top student, much to the disgust of the more studious Hermione. All the while, a plot is unfolding with Potter’s student nemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) shuffling around Hogwarts, working alone rather than having his cronies with him. Harry becomes somewhat of a junior sleuth, not only trying to find out what mischief Malfoy has got himself mixed up in, but looking for the identity of the Half-Blood Prince—who may or may not be connected to Malfoy’s odd behavior.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince works exceptionally well, largely due to its supporting cast, who have played a pivotal part to all the films. Standouts include Oscar winner Jim Broadbent as Slughorn, who treats his students like equals and not like kids. Broadbent’s charming demeanor is on full display: cracking jokes and drinking a little too much, while his shuddering eyes silently evoke everything in his haunted past. Tom Felton as Malfoy, who was largely ignored in the last film, comes back full-force—and much taller and thinner as well—revealing a truly evil nature. Felton’s stout mannerism could help him become a classic villain on screen, not just in the Harry Potter series, but hopefully long after the series ends. As we’ve seen Harry, Hermione, and Ron grow before our eyes, so has Ron’s younger sister, Ginny, sweetly played by Bonnie Wright, who has been in love with Harry since the beginning. In this film Wright really gets a chance to shine as a love interest not only for Harry who is also positioned to serve as a major player in the last film. Wright makes a connection with Radcliffe in one scene in particular that has a bit of a John Hughes feel, but nevertheless feels authentic and right, until it is broken up by some nasty mayhem.
The actor who really shines, though, is Alan Rickman with his slimy, cankerous portrayal of newly appointed Dark Arts professor Severus Snape—who makes the case that he has been the one to get under Harry’s skin, more so than Lord Voldemort himself. Rickman has always been a malevolent presence in all the Potter films, but here he really invokes true menace that has never been shown in any of the previous Harry Potter films, making it all the more fascinating to watch him draped under his black cloak. His stringy black hair against his pale face flinging one quip after another makes Rickman half of a perfect dueling act between unforgiving employer and trusted servant.
I was never having a fan of the Quidditch matches in the earlier films (former director Chris Columbus butchered them repeatedly), but Yates and twice Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bruno Belbonnel (Amelia, A Very Long Engagement) serve the fictional sport well, with a mesmerizing depiction of players flying and spinning on their broomsticks, the frenzy of the students watching on, and spells being cast. Yates captures not only the fans’ reactions to the action in the game but also their swoons over the players. Yes, the playful kids have now grown into hormone-raged young adults attempting to find love or create awkward love triangles for one another, hoping to finally get a chance to snog (kiss) someone. These romantic angles are a very welcome (and needed) surprise, supplying the film with some wonderful humor and plenty of laughs, where some of the comedy in the previous films felt as old as last week’s leftovers. Oscar-nominated screenwriter Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys) makes a triumphant return to the series by providing more convincing dialogue for the adolescents’ romantic involvements and tightening the inner struggles of many of the key characters.
Yates keeps the story moving in a well-nuanced mystery, giving fans want they want most: an entertaining film that is also a faithful representation of the book. The last film was rated PG-13 and the new one is PG, and one could make the case that this one could have easily been PG-13 again (parents be aware): the scares and the darker tone make the movie all the more compelling and foreboding events yet to come.
The film does rush its ending a bit. Some may complain about its 2½-hour running time (and it’s not even the longest in the series), but we’re left with some answers provided and many questions left looming, especially a cliffhanger that will come crashing down soon enough. All in all, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was well-worth the wait. (It was originally slated for last November.) There’s only one book left to follow, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which will be released as two films to appear in 2010 and 2011. Time will tell if that’s the right decision or not—I’m sure Warner Brothers thinks it’s brilliant—but one thing is for certain. Harry Potter, the young boy wizard we once knew, has now become a man with a plan.
Jim Brunzell III (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes on film for the Daily Planet and hosts KFAI’s Movie Talk.
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