Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Harry and Dumbledore prepare for war in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Director: David Yates

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Grainger), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Jim Broadbent (Horace Slughorn), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Gemma Jones (Madam Pomfrey), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), Natalia Tena (Tonks), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is perhaps the least stand-alone of the Harry Potter novels. Intended as a bridge into the final book (and carrying a lot of mystery), for obvious reasons it also has no Dumbledore-explains-the-plot-to-Harry chapter at the end (making it unique in the series). It also has the series’ least interesting MacGuffin – the identity of the Half-Blood Princehimself being considered of such little note here that it barely gets a mention in the film. But despite all this, the highly experienced Harry Potter crew deliver another exciting, dramatic and fully engaging film.

While I may not have thought David Yates was a natural film director, I have to say in this film his cinematic craft has really kicked into gear. There are images of fascinating depth and beauty here, and the film is beautifully shot by Bruno Delbonnel (Oscar-nominated). Like never before, Hogwarts seems like a place of inky greens and deep soulful shadows. The camera often allows characters’ faces to fill the middle of the frame, while still giving us depth of vision of the world around them. Carefully composed shots show the rich detail of plenty of objects, from dead birds to photographs. It’s a luscious film.

It also has a sad nostalgia to it: it feels like it’s about things coming to an end. Unlike any other film in the series, there are very few scenes of hi-jinks in Hogwarts. Comic relief characters like Neville and Hagrid are noticeable by their (mostly) absence. 

Instead the film looks at that sad half-way house between being a child and an adult. Or rather, the responsibilities and duties of an adult being thrust onto a child. Obviously Harry is scarcely ready to take on his mantle of chosen one – and feels bereft and lonely. But, in a neat contrast, Draco Malfoy is also being pushed into a task he is far too young for, and ill-suited to. The film could have actually made more of pulling out the contrasts between these two characters – although time is always at a premium in these films, with so much of Rowling’s plot to squeeze in.

Despite this, Tom Felton gives his finest performance in the series as a tortured and deeply scared Draco Malfoy, who for the first time seems like just a normal, insecure boy terrified of the dark acts he feels he has to do. The film gets a lot of emotional mileage out of this (more than it does, actually, from Harry’s predicaments) and Felton’s expressive agony and tearful lack of control for the first time make him someone we can relate to, and feel sorry for.

It also brings out different character traits in other characters, not least the protective side of Snape. Alan Rickman gets one of his meatiest roles in the series here, wonderfully playing multiple different emotions and motivations under a cold inscrutable surface. His character is a constantly intriguing shift of feelings – but it’s clear he does, in his way, care for Draco’s safety (just as he does for the other children in his care). Rickman also gives a brilliant sense of Snape’s moral uncertainty, and his every look suggest waves of emotion under tight control. It’s a wonderful performance of suggesting a lot under the surface while not doing a lot. Not to mention Rickman also manages to skilfully leave everything open for debate as to Snape’s true motives.

It’s striking how many of the series regulars come into prominence here. Not just Felton and Rickman, but this is also Gambon’s finest performance. By now Gambon had pretty much nailed Dumbledore, giving the part a great deal of compassion and quiet moral force. His sad urging for Draco to ask for his help near the end of the film is rather moving, as are the soft, sad tones Gambon drops throughout the film suggesting Dumbledore’s pain and guilt. Gambon gets a perfect balance between a twinkly charm and a quiet authoritativeness that works wonderfully.

Surprisingly however, what works less well is Harry’s plotline. Daniel Radcliffe is underpowered and slightly underwhelming, a little too sullen and sulky to really win our sympathy (Radcliffe himself has named this as his least favourite performance). It doesn’t help either that there is no chemistry between him and Bonnie Wright as Ginny Weasley. Wright, bless her, is not a strong actor and she constantly undersells each of these scenes – unable to bring the sort of bright, sexy playfulness her book equivalent has. Instead both she and Radcliffe feel sulky and awkward, and the romantic scenes between them (of which there are many) fall flat time and time again. Once you notice this total lack of spark between them you can’t see anything else!

Radcliffe has far more chemistry with Emma Watson – but she and Rupert Grint (along with many of the rest of the younger cast) have very little of any real consequence to do. The dysfunctional middle of the film, with Radcliffe and Wright flirting, drifts all the time, meaning the focus of the film zeroes in on the “adult-character” plots. Yates and screenwriter Steven Kloves do their best to add drama and excitement to a book where most of the dramatic high points are Dumbledore and Harry either watching memories, or Harry using a book to do much better at potions.

And by and large they succeed. Action sequences are added: the opening attack on the Millennium Bridge by Death Eaters is terrific, and there is an exciting (if totally plot free) attack by Death Eaters on the Weasley home. Yates again sells the moments of awe: there are some beautiful shots in Voldemort’s cave hideaway, and once again he makes Dumbledore’s power a true jaw-hits-the-floor moment. 

Half Blood Prince is beautifully filmed and well directed, even if one of its primary sub-plots doesn’t really work. There are some terrific performances: Felton, Rickman and Gambon possibly do their best work here, while Jim Broadbent is wonderfully funny but also touchingly sad and rumpled as Slughorn. It’s not Radcliffe’s finest hour, but it’s a film that works very well as an entrée to the series’ final arc. And it really captures a sense of morose sadness, mourning and regret wonderfully effectively – the final sequences carry real emotional weight. It’s a fine film – and one of Rowling’s favourites as it turns out.

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