Principal Cast : Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Tom Felton, Michael Gambon, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Jim Broadbent, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, David Thewlis, Julie Walters, Evanna Lynch, Bonnie Wright, Mark Williams, Warwick Davis, Gemma Jones, Mark Williams, Natalia Tena, James & Oliver Phelps, Bonnie Wright, Devon Murray, Alfred Enoch, Matthew Lewis, Katie Leung, Jamie Waylett, Joshua Herdman, Jessie Cave, Anna Shaffer, Freddie Stroma, Helen McCrory, David Legeno, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Frank Dillane.
Synopsis: Harry is seconded by Dumbledore to prize a secret from the mind of a former Hogwarts teacher, while Draco Malfoy is given a deadly task by Lord Voldemort – a task which will bring Voldemort’s evil plan to the brink of success.
One of the darker, more personal Harry Potter films, The Half-Blood Prince represents the penultimate cinematic adventure for the boy wizard before the grand finale of The Deathly Hallows. Prince is an exceptionally dark film, both literally and metaphysically, and I’d be careful about the younger viewers seeing this – death and darkness spread across the film’s frames like a blanket, enveloping the audience in an oppressive, suffocating layer of tension. The ending, a shocker of a cliffhanger for those who haven’t read the books, delivers the required emotional punch as the catalyst for what will follow in the 2-part Deathly Hallows, and while I’d like to spend a bit of time yakking about it, I’m not going to for fear of spoiling the treat that awaits the virgin viewer. The central question to the film, outside of whether or not Voldemort is going to appear, is exactly who is the “half-blood prince”, and what does he have to do with Harry Potter? While the answer to that question isn’t as exciting as the question itself, the journey to find the answer is. Emotionally wrought, alternately sad and uplifting, the Potter kids go through the wringer in this one, and it’s easy to see why this is up there for one of the most popular of the franchises’ entries.
With the wizarding world in a state due to the public reappearance of Voldemort in The Order Of The Phoenix, things are getting more tense around Hogwarts – many families of the students no longer consider the school safe to be in, with Dumbledore seemingly incapable of thwarting the forces of the Death Eaters. Recruiting a former teacher of Voldemort’s back to the school, Dumbledore asks Harry to befriend the older man to learn the secret behind an altered memory – the memory of an exchange between Tom Riddle (Voldemort’s previous identity) and Professor Slughorn, which has clues to Voldemort’s current plans. Ron, meanwhile, is having problems of his own, with his attraction to Hermione – and hers to him – being distracted by other romantic interests springing up; one young girl (Lavender Brown, played by Jessie Cave)is besotted by Ron, while Hermione attracts the unwanted attention of an older Quiddich jock. Meanwhile, Draco Malfoy is given a task by Voldemort – he must kill someone – and the pressure to do so is threatening to tear him apart. Draco’s mother, who suspects her son may not be able to perform this mysterious task, challenges Snape to assist her son and protect him if he fails in this task – leading to an awful confrontation at the end of the film.
Director David Yates, returning to the Potter fold following a successful debut in The Order Of The Phoenix, continues the franchises descent into the darkness of Harry’s finale battle with Voldemort – he delicately handles both the deathly seriousness of the Potter narrative and the light-hearted moments of the main trio’s extra-personal affairs: specifically the romantic triangle of Ron, Hermione and Lavender Brown. He also allows Draco Malfoy to develop as a character, showing a side to the wannabe bad-boy we’ve not yet seen before – fear of the dark lord. Tom Felton, as Draco, has never been as tormented as he is here, and I think this is his best performance in any of the Potter films. Potter newcomer Jim Broadbent, no stranger to audiences with a list of film appearances as long as your arm, does a solid job as Slughorn, imbuing the bumbling teacher with an underlying layer of inner strength. Really enjoyed his work here. Alan Rickman once more displays a perfect ability to put pauses in sentences, as Snape, delivering another snarling, silky-smooth performance in the lead up to his denouement in Deathly Hallows. Michael Gambon has a meatier part as Dumbledore here, with another action sequence and some solid one-on-one moments with Daniel Radcliffe bringing the required gravitas – even if his use of “I would imagine you’re wondering why I’ve done what I’ve done blah blah…” lines become a little tiresome.
Speaking of Radcliffe, the main trio we’ve come to know and love over the journey do a terrific adult job here – they’ve gone beyond being the children we saw in Philosopher’s Stone and become teenagers, and with this maturity comes a better handle on their acting performances. Radcliffe is the star here, shouldering more than the normal share of screen-time (most of it with Jim Broadbent and Michael Gambon) and delivering a portrayal of Harry which is empathetic, emotional, and layered. Emma Watson, as Hermione, is superb as the coyly bashful young woman frustrated at Ron’s inability to recognize her attention even though she’s never voiced it. Rupert Grint effortlessly handles the comedic role of Ron Weasley, transitioning from a hormone-ridden teen boy into a resigned near-adult within the length of the film. He’s a dim-witted young lad, at times, our Ron, and Grint handles his befuddlement extremely well – his line to McGonagall about always being involved in trouble is one of the best of the series. Indeed, of all the films up to this point in the saga, Prince reflects the more adult toned nature of JK Rowling’s later books. The themes in this film, involving death and sorrow, as well as unrequited love, are certainly not for kids who would happily sit down and watch Philosopher’s Stone with ease, so discretion is advised before allowing the younger tots to view this one.
I mentioned David Yates’ work earlier as being delicate; the film itself is not quite as fortissimo as previous instalments, perhaps part of Yates’ plan to bring things to a head in the two-part finale. Sure, there’s action and special effects galore, but they lack the thrills of earlier instalments like the dragon battle from Goblet Of Fire. Instead, Yates spends a great deal of the film focusing on character development, which is awesome. That’s not to say Yates doesn’t handle the action well – he does, and in spades – but I was thankful that we got more time with Harry and Dumbledore, more building of the relationship between Hermione and Ron, and a better peek inside the Death Eater’s plans involving Snape. Technically, Prince is a superb looking film, with amazing cinematography from DOP Bruno Delbonnel, using the darkness and shadows of a more fear-filled Hogwarts to great effect. Yates also knows how to use the widescreen scope of the film to superb effect, filling each frame of the film with eye-candy, even if our focus should be on something important. Sometimes I think directors don’t quite make the best use of the widescreen scope in their films, preferring to use the wider frame to showcase a stunning landscape or other scenery, and becoming lost when it comes to putting people in front of the shot. Yates, however, actually uses the frame of the film to tell the story as well, giving us glimpses, hints and classic iconography of Potter throughout, while the cast add to the narrative with their own work as well. Instead of just putting actors in front of a scope frame and hoping they’re interesting enough to draw your attention, Yates makes sure the frame works for the story in every moment, not just in the money-shots.
Nicholas Hooper’s score, as usual making glorious use of John Williams’ now iconic themes, is superbly integrated into the movie. It’s a popping, entrancing, truly theatrical score of note, and a wonderful underpinning of the action on-screen. The fun of the quiddich match tryouts, the silliness of Lavender Brown’s infatuation with Ron, as well as the impending doom referenced continuously throughout the movie allow Hooper’s sweeping, intimate and utterly intuitive score to resonate even more powerfully with the images. While Hooper’s work isn’t quite as inspired as John Williams’ original work on Philosopher’s Stone, it’s still a magnificent work of art.
While it’s hard to categorize the Potter films as magnificent works of fiction by standards set in decades long past, by their own benchmark (my own personal favorite, Prisoner Of Azkaban) The Half-Blood Prince ranks as one of the more superior entries into the series. The tone and nuances in the script, the darker narrative and emotional journey into adulthood by our three heroes, as well as Yates’s superb handling of Steve Kloves’s screenplay, make Prince not only one of the better films in the Potter franchise, but a top class film in itself. It has heart and soul, it has genuine character development and audience involvement, and even if the Bad Guy doesn’t appear once in shot throughout, you get the sense of something larger at work behind the scenes. The Half-Blood Prince is magnificent.