Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Review

(2.5 STARS)

Coming off the high that was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, my anticipation was off-the-charts for the sixth film in J.K. Rowling’s hugely popular series—Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Not only is the film based on what is, in my opinion, the strongest novel in the series, but I also think the filmmakers just nailed the last film. How could they screw this one up? Well, turning the richest, most layered story of Harry Potter into what’s essentially a fantastical romantic comedy is one way. Gone is much of the mythology, much of the brilliant expositional material from the novel. Instead, we spend two-plus hours dealing with 16-year-old hormones. The film is saved by some truly haunting scenes near the end, but it’s a bit of a tough slog getting to that point.

Now that Lord Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) return to power has been recognized, dangerous things are happening all over Britain. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is in as perilous a position as ever, as the Death Eaters are putting all their strength into fighting Harry and the Order of the Phoenix. Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) meets up with Harry and ends his summer vacation early. He needs his help convincing a former colleague, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), to come out of retirement and return to Hogwarts. Slughorn loves surrounding himself with wealthy, talented, or connected witches and wizards, and Dumbledore thinks a personal request from Harry is just what is needed to lure Slughorn back. But Dumbledore doesn’t just want Slughorn for his potions knowledge. He happened to be a former mentor to Tom Riddle, aka Lord Voldemort, and he has some information hidden in his mind that might help Harry fulfill his destiny and destroy his nemesis.

The fifth film in the series was dark—very dark, almost hopeless. Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves (returning after a one-film hiatus) do the series a great disservice by reverting back to the almost playful tone of the first two films. It’s definitely more adult than either Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone or Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but I was disappointed that so much of the film was devoted to the personal stuff when there’s so much else going on. And when you factor in all the great back story that was cut, I’d say this is probably one of the weakest entries in the series.

What makes it watchable, even weakly recommendable, is the brilliant cave sequence and everything that comes after it. The final 45 minutes of this film are just exquisite, both technically and emotionally. The art direction and cinematography within the cave are just jaw-droppingly good. Yates does a fantastic job building tension and a sense of dread. And what happens next is probably the emotional peak of the series so far. It’s just a shame these shining moments are stuck within an otherwise lackluster motion picture.

Our three principal actors came alive in Order of the Phoenix, and while they are certainly good here, none of them progresses. Don’t get me wrong, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson are all solid, but I have to say I slightly preferred their work in Order. Part of the reason for that, I’d guess, is that the material they had to work with on that film was much rangier and more challenging than what’s in this film. The MVP of Half-Blood Prince, instead, goes to Jim Broadbent. Horace Slughorn is a very entertaining character, and the Oscar-winning Brit totally makes him his own.

I’m not usually one to complain about the way a piece of work is adapted for the screen. In my opinion, it’s called an “adaptation” for a reason, and filmmakers have the right to deviate from the source as much as they see fit. I do take issue, however, when I think the decision to deviate is the wrong one. I don’t think Yates and Kloves deviated all that much from the Half-Blood Prince novel, but I do think they focused on entirely the wrong stuff, and I’m very curious how they’ll weave the cut exposition into the final films (it’s stuff that’s completely necessary to resolve the plot). It’s a shame this film didn’t totally work, however. Despite being just exemplary on a technical level, it just gets the story and tone so wrong.

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