Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the first Potter movie that has enough confidence to let the visuals do the talking. I’m not sure if there’s actually any less dialog in this installment, but it feels like it. It’s a movie where the main plot lurks in the shadows until it suddenly comes to a head at the end. Most of the dialog concerns itself with the various dramas from the edge of adulthood, unrequited love and heartbreak. Not the fluffy kind of teenage flings that fizzle in weeks, but the deep affection that comes from seeing someone at their worst and sticking with it. More than any of the other movies, the challenges of adolescence is at the front of this movie.
Part of that must be because there really isn’t a ton going on in terms of the central conflict, Harry’s suspicions about Draco Malfoy. Harry has a hunch, but not much else. His fears are dismissed by the adults, and their isn’t a lot of movement until all of those omens come to fruition at the end. The book also concerns itself with the back-story of Voldemort, his childhood and his obsessions, and what those tell Harry about how to defeat him. That’s my favorite part of the novel, but it’s mostly condensed to its bare essentials here. That’s fine for the most part, since info-dumps work better in prose than on film. I like learning about Voldemort’s parentage, but it would have been a drag on what is already a long movie. Unfortunately it also means that Harry and Dumbledore are given less time to bond with each other, which is a loss that carries into the next two movies as well. I’ll discuss that more next week though.
And anyway I don’t want to act like what we get isn’t terrific. The first three movies played so well to me that it was a little disappointing to see the relative flaws in the fourth and fifth movies. But this is the first adaptation of one of the “doorstop” volumes (which would be the last four books) that really feels like it’s given room to breathe. It’s longer and less plot-intensive, more leisurely paced and character-focused. Without layers of mysteries to unravel, it can concentrate on details of mood and atmosphere.
The atmosphere of the movie is what I like the most, actually. The first five movies all have a more or less realistic look, but here everything is shot with a more stylized look. It’s all greens and grays, mist and shadow, and the effect is ethereal and lovely. There’s an impressionistic design to the whole movie, almost Gothic in its execution. It’s easy to think that it adds to the gloom, since the sky always looks like they characters should be listening for a tornado siren. But it’s actually the best way they could convey the gathering darkness of the later books. Would you rather they film it in all its grime and violence? Not me. I much prefer this style for its restraint and beauty. We saw the hints of what director David Yates could do in the last movie, but here he shows more confidence not only in his material, but in the audience.
Because that impressionistic tone extends to the screenplay, which is once again done by Steve Kloves after he sat out the last movie. Taking advantage of the lighter plot, he doubles down on the teenage drama to great effect. Most of the conflict between the characters comes not from Malfoy’s plot, but from the unspoken feelings between Ron and Hermione. Rowling treats this conflict as one more disagreement between characters, albeit one where the stakes are more personal. So I was surprised that, in the scene where Harry comforts Hermione after Ron runs off with Lavender, I felt all of the heartbreak that comes from having an explosion of unfamiliar feelings and no way to express them. The story is just better at showing instead of telling, only once or twice requiring a character to explain something to another one. Most of the dialog seems to be dancing around what the obvious point is, whether it’s romantic feelings or the way that Harry tries to get the memory from Slughorn.
It says something that across the board, the cast is entirely up to the challenge. After pursuing a somewhat less composed version of Dumbledore, Michael Gambon is really given room to stretch here, especially in the heart-breaking climax. All of the main trio do a great job, but Daniel Radcliffe has definitely come the farthest by this point. He’s able to mine some unexpected humor here and there, and he’s able to make a thankless role look natural. Jim Broadbent is yet another inspired casting choice as Horace Slughorn, all pomp and self-preservation. Alan Rickman turns in his usual excellence as Snape. But the secret MVP here is Tom Felton, who suddenly gives Draco Malfoy way more depth than we have seen up until this point. He barely speaks in the entire movie, but he does so well that I find myself wishing that we’d seen more of him in the previous five films.
The only misstep is the strange addition of the attack on the Burrow, coming at about the halfway point. Half-Blood Prince is generally short on action, so it seems like a natural move to add some pep to the middle section. But what was added feels very poorly considered and generally has zero effect on the rest of the movie. So the Death Eaters have the ability to just attack Harry wherever? Why isn’t this done constantly whenever he’s not at Hogwarts? Knowing the background of the book makes it even more maddening, since they’re breaking a few more rules that aren’t in place in the movies. I’m not sure how it plays to people who haven’t read the novel, but it sticks out like a sore thumb to me.
It is, however, only one scene in what is easily my favorite installment since Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s dream-like visuals and spare script are such bold choices for a series that generally has played it pretty safe and marketable. There is nothing wrong with either of those things, but it’s invigorating to be this late in the series and see something that stands out so much. Not only does it set the table for the finale, but it points the way that the series will take in the home stretch. It’s mature in the best way, where it doesn’t treat the audience like children. There is grief and pain out there, and there will be more. But there will always be humanity and laughter and most of all, love.
- Quidditch makes it’s first appearance since the third movie, and it looks mighty slick. I am just a little in love with Ron’s keeper helmet.
- Another secret MVP in this series: Luna Lovegood, once again played with loopy aplomb by Evanna Lynch. Her date with Harry makes me smile with its perverse logic.
- Does anyone else think that Helena Bonham-Carter is almost too obvious a choice for Bellatrix Lastrange? Did the casting director owe Tim Burton a favor?
- The climax in the cave is wonderfully done, but I’ve always regretted the loss of the line where Dumbledore tells Harry that he’s not afraid, “because I’m with you.”
- The Dursleys are written out of the movie entirely, maybe because at this point they feel like they belong in a different series altogether.
- The last four movies I’ve written about have all had a unique visual hook to the end credits, the Marauder’s Map in Prisoner of Azkaban, the burning paper in Goblet of Fire, and the Daily Prophet layout in Order of the Phoenix. Here it’s the clouds of ink-like memories as they dribble into the Pensieve. I’m sure someone who’s paid to do so could figure out some thematic significance to these things.
- Half-Blood Prince was a casualty of the 2007-2008 Writer’s Strike. It was originally slated to release at the end of 2008, even releasing a theatrical trailer. Just months before the release date, it was announced that it would instead be released the next summer to prop up a sagging summer schedule that was left empty by the strike. That makes a two-year wait between this installment and the previous one, the longest such gap in the whole series if you can believe that.