Movie Review – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

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The following review is going to have a few spoilers.  I’ll provide a CAPITALIZED SPOILER WARNING IN RED before each major reveal, so you can automatically jump to them and ruin the movie (and the book) for yourselves.

 As usual though, I’d like to start with a bit of history first…

 I got into the Harry Potter series at the age of 11, when some close family friends returned from their trip to England with a fantasy book that seemed on the cusp of greatness.  This was before “Potter Mania” caught on, before the mainstreaming of the series, and a year after I’d read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  I was on a fantasy kick, and reading a story where the main character grew up with me, almost always my exact age, was amongst the most extraordinary experiences I’ve had with literature.  Also, I was 11 years old, and didn’t pay attention to what was “mainstream” or “underground.”  I just cared whether or not a book was good.  And Harry Potter was GREAT.  Even now, the Potter books remain amongst the greatest exercises in literary imagination.  What J.K. lacked in writing finesse, she more than made up for with a compelling cast of characters, witty humor and sheer creativity.  Haters beware, you will get no sympathy from me (especially those that refuse to try Potter because “OOOOOOooo it’s popular“).

 AAaaaanyway…

 The years 2000-2001 were the height of “Potter-Mania,” and the release of the darker, more adult Goblet of Fire showed a distinct shift of tone.  Simultaneously, trailers for a film adaptation of the first book were finally surfacing, accompanied with spoiler-heavy internet buzz.  I remember waiting half an hour for my 56K modem to load the trailer.  When the movie was finally released, my 15-year-old self was quite satisfied with it, especially in regards to the casting.  Each subsequent film built on what was established, the child actors refining their abilities.  Chamber of Secrets was enjoyable and light-hearted, much like the first entry of the series.  Prisoner of Azkaban was a visual feast, but a terrible adaptation of its source material, substituting character development for shrunken heads.  Goblet of Fire was an intense, hormonal, often hilarious but ultimately dark entry (much like its source material), and was a very strong entry in the series.  2007’s Order of the Phoenix took the longest and dullest of the novels and turned it into the most tightly-paced and well-acted film of the series, due largely to director David Yates.

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 So now we come to the sixth of the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, again directed by Yates.  From the get-go you know it’s a different ride compared to its companions in the series.  The familiar WB shield is muted and pale, with dark foreboding clouds swirling as we flash to Harry and Dumbledore being assaulted by the press immediately following the conclusion of the last movie.  Following this, we find ourselves in London as Voldemort’s Death Eater followers wreck terrorist havoc on some muggles, the Millennium Bridge and Diagon Alley.  There’s an urgency here, a foreboding, as if there’s a seeping, slithering tragedy establishing itself.  Rowling’s novel captured this feeling very well, but what Rowling says with adjectives, Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves say with muted colors, implicative subtext and visual subtlety.  The film is amongst the most intense I’ve seen – quite a feat for a PG-rating – but it lies just beneath the surface.  While there is comedy and teen-aged angst, light-hearted conversations and mysteries to be solved, you can feel an insurmountable darkness building, an intensity waiting in the shadows, and the sinister lurking just beyond reach.  The brilliantly polished script exquisitely depicts this coming darkness with its pacing, subtext and dialogue.

 Half-Blood Prince is, without any debate, the best-acted entry of the series.  Each and every actor, from the bit parts to the leads, has an opportunity to rise above their previous work.  From what I understand, this is due greatly to David Yates’ direction.

 Let’s start with the “kids”…

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 Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) has evolved from a three expressioned child to a truly wonderful actor.  He displays an extensive range in Half-Blood Prince, including his usual emotions.  But his crying scene is significantly more convincing this time around, and he also gets to exercise his comic chops, which truly do prove to be present.  I had no idea that Radcliffe could be so funny!  Overall, he has truly established himself as a young leading man.

 Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) just keeps growing more extraordinary.  Hermione finally gets to flex her emotional muscles during this go-around, and Watson is certainly up to the challenge.  There’s a particularly effective crying scene that gives new clout to the saying “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” (and, well, change “scorned” to “ignored” or “betrayed” and you’re set).  Additionally, she brings more heart to her character than we’ve seen.

 Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) has an undeniable comic gift.  Not only is his timing impeccable (his scenes with Jim Broadbent are gut-busting) but his facial expressions are flat-out hysterical.  Grint’s dramatic acting is also up to par, but let’s face it…Ron’s the comic relief of the trio and Grint is truly funny.

 As a trio, Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have also come a long way.  Their chemistry together is so natural and familiar, you believe they are good friends because they are in reality.  It’s such a pleasure to see them grow up together.

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 Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley) portrays Ginny in a very different (but in no way worse)  manner than I pictured reading the book.  Rowling writes Ginny as brash and forward, confident and fun-loving.  Wright captures these elements, but adds a subtlety (the word of the night!) and grace I never thought Ginny possessed.  The result is something very rare and very special – a love interest of depth, humor and sensitivity.  Onscreen, Wright absolutely shines.

 Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) has gotten the short end of the stick during the past few Potter movies.  What should have been a multi-layered villain was reduced to a mere high school bully.  In Half-Blood Prince, Malfoy is given his dues and Felton delivers!  His heart-wrenching portrayal of a misguided young man torn between fear for his life and what is right might actually be the most affecting performance of the film.  I know Felton has said he does not really wish to continue acting, but after his performance here, it would truly be a tragedy if he denies his clear talents.

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 Moving onto the adults…

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 Michael Gambon (Dumbledore) wasn’t Richard Harris (the original Dumbledore), and he had enormous shoes to fill.  Initially, I hated his portrayal of Dumbledore.  He was too loud and booming and lacked the silliness and cheekiness that Rowling wrote into the character.  After seeing Half-Blood Prince, I don’t think I can picture anybody else portraying everyone’s favorite headmaster.  Gambon IS Dumbledore, and his performance is beautiful, powerful, tragic, funny and altogether brilliant.

 Jim Broadbent (Horace Slughorn) is, alongside Rupert Grint, Half-Blood Prince‘s humor center.  From the moment he CAPITALIZED SPOILER WARNING IN RED changes from an armchair back into human form END CAPITALIZED SPOILER WARNING IN RED, his screentime is accompanied with chuckles, guffaws, and even a few loud laugh-fests.  However, his dramatic scenes are equally brilliant.  Broadbent is a fantastic addition to the extraordinary cast, and plays his role perfectly.

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 Alan Rickman (Severus Snape) brings a humanity to his character I never pictured in the book.  Rowling never really writes Snape as conflicted, just sulky, but Rickman’s facial expressions alone add depth and humanity to this extremely compelling character.  His line delivery, as always, is spot-on.  When he finally commits the infamous final deed of the film, there is sheer regret on his face.  I cannot see anybody else portraying Snape.  As always, Rickman was brilliant.

 Supporting roles are of course solid.  Of particular notes were Helena Bonham-Carter’s certifiable Bellatrix Lestrange, Helen McCrory’s tormented Narcissa Malfoy, Evanna Lynch’s always delightful Luna Lovegood, Maggie Smith’s pitch-perfect Prof. McGonagall, Jessie Cave’s hilariously clingy Lavender Brown, Dave Legeno’s ferocious Fenrir Greyback and Freddie Stroma’s crude Cormac McLaggen.

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 Half-Blood Prince‘s production values were outstanding.  Special effects were not blaring or gaudy, they supplemented the story and functioned subtly (agian, word of the night!), beautifully, and occasionally terrifyingly.  The CAPITALIZED SPOILER WARNING IN RED cave scene with the horcrux was particularly stunning, especially when Dumbledore spewed swirls of fire at the inferi END CAPITALIZED SPOILER WARNING IN RED.  Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography was the best of the summer.  Camera angles were inventive, and the film could move from a sweeping panorama to an up-close chase view seamlessly.  An additional bonus: NO SHAKY CAM 😀 😀 :-D!!!  Nicholas Hooper’s score wasn’t bombastic.  It wasn’t virtuosic.  It was slow, tense, jovial, textured and understated.  Truly a beautiful job.

 CAPITALIZED SPOILER WARNING IN RED FOR ENTIRE PARAGRAPH

My only complaint about the film itself, from a film-viewer’s perspective, was the slow-motion Dumbledore death.  It seems like deaths of major characters always have to be filmed in slow-mo these days, but I always find deaths more impactful if they’re done in real-time.  My two remaining (minor) quips about the film are in regards to important omissions from the book.  First and foremost, a massive battle between Hogwarts staff and Aurors against the invading Death Eaters at the end of the book did not make it into the film.  While I know we’ll have gratuitous action in the now-split Deathly Hallows, wouldn’t it have been alright to give us a taste of crazy wizard-vs-wizard combat?  Secondly, the formal funeral for Dumbledore was cut entirely, which is when Harry gives Ginny the Peter Parker “I love you too much to endanger you so I have to break-up with you” speech.  Anyway.  Those were fairly minor objections.  Won’t cost the movie more than half a point.

END CAPITALIZED SPOILER WARNING IN RED

 Ultimately, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a very strong addition to the series.  By far the best written, acted, and directed of the series, every element of the film is elevated to a new level of artistry.  It’s the first Potter adaptation that transcends simple entertainment and achieves a heightened place as a film.  For this reason, I must give Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince a resoundingly high 9.5/10 in my book.  How truly refreshing that children and adults alike can watch a highly entertaining yet beautiful piece of cinema.  It’s already started to break Transformers 2‘s records.  Let us all give thanks.

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6 Responses to “Movie Review – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”

  1. I gotta disagree with your assessment of Order of the Phoenix – I found the book really enjoyable, and I thought the movie was kind of jumbled and that they put all the production work into the final battle scenes and kind of ignored the rest of the movie. They even left out the coolest part of the Voldemort/Dumbledore battle where he brings the fountain statues to life to help contain the chaos a bit.

    I will agree with you that Alan Rickman is the only person that could have possibly played Snape the way he was meant to be played. He is absolutely perfect for the role and has been since day one. Not that I expected any less of him, but glad to see he is keeping the character as nuanced and interesting as I have always thought him to be. Rickman is truly a great actor.

  2. Dave B. Says:

    It’s really funny how we each have completely different opinions of Book Five and Movie Five. I thought the book to be overstuffed with extraneous plot threads and felt no sympathy for the whiny Harry. The movie distilled the important essence of the book, getting rid of its most tedious aspects. However, it WOULD have been pretty awesome if Dumbledore had brought the statues to life, but that’s an incredibly minor quip.

    • Harry is emo as fuck all the time, so nothing new there! I loved book five but it was not without its flaws – for instance, I really hated Tonks as a character, and Umbridge, though she was meant to be completely one dimensional, was so OVER THE TOP EVIL that I just ended up not caring about anything having to do with her.

      • I’m not trying to beat a dead horse but hear me out…

        Yeah Harry was emo in book five, but he was more than that…he was flat-out stupid, and that fact irritated me beyond belief. The movie depicted his motivations for such stupidity and feelings in a better fashion than the book (in my humble opinion).

  3. Awesome Girl (aka Christine) Says:

    Omg, I love Harry Potter and I just think half-blood prince was awful. Order of the Phoenix was definitely better.

    • In retrospect (as in MONTHS later), I feel like the ORDER OF THE PHOENIX film is still the best of the movies, but I still hated that book with a passion! As a film, I feel like HALF-BLOOD PRINCE upped the artistry when compared with its predecessors in regards to acting and direction. Just my humble opinion though 🙂

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