If you didn’t know that you were watching the latest installment in the Harry Potter series, if you hadn’t bought the ticket yourself and sat through the opening credits, then the odds are good that you wouldn’t know what, exactly, you were watching in the film’s first scene, in which swirling black apparitions wreak havoc on the hapless citizens of London. As the action moves on to the eponymous hero, who we find sitting in a cafe reading a wizard’s newspaper, things become much more clear– Daniel Radcliffe’s quiet, bespectacled visage and lightning bolt scar couldn’t be much more a dead giveaway.
But almost immediately, he engages in some harmless flirting with a pretty waitress, providing a charming (if brief) moment which the series has up until now lacked. It is not until the sudden appearance of noble and wise Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) that the film settles into the expectations that one holds coming into a Harry Potter film: Within moments, the duo travel via magic to the home of a retired Hogwarts professor, who holds a key to unlocking critical information about the nature of the story’s great antagonist, Voldemort, and from there the game is afoot.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince perhaps more than any other entry in the saga frees itself utterly of recap and catch-up; there is no exposition during the opening sequence, and none still afterwards. No callbacks are made to the previous film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and there is a dearth of self-referential dialogue for filling in the space between the two. This lends the film a sort of sudden quality to it; the Death-Eaters’ (dark wizards in the service of Voldemort) attack on London is an action beat that feels like it might have been comfortable later on the film, yet it’s that precise abruptness to the opening chaos that helps the film stand out. It is a reminder that events are unfolding in the greater world that exists outside of Harry’s own universe, which in turn accords greater urgency to his role in them. Make no mistake, Half-Blood Prince is the highest-stakes Harry Potter film yet; young love blossoms in the halls of Hogwarts, the measure of Harry’s purpose as Chosen One is revealed, and more lives are lost.
As grand as the movie’s scope is, encompassing themes of power and responsibility and other such time-honored heroic motifs, what makes Half-Blood Prince work are the character moments that lie in between the reveals and the action. It’s strange to think that at one point discussion was held over whether or not the original child actors would be kept on through the entirety of the series; I find it hard to imagine that these films would have as much dramatic oomph to them with a different cast. We have seen, quite literally, these characters grow from children to young adults as Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, and Tom Felton (who here steals the show as Harry’s schoolyard nemesis, Draco Malfoy, who has never before felt like as much of a threat or as pitiable a boy) were chosen to reprise the roles they originally played in 2001’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The process has been remarkable to behold, if somewhat comical at times (as each actor now is significantly older than the characters they play), but overall the effect of seeing these actors grow up has bonded them to their audiences which makes the small moments– such as Hermione tearfully confessing to Harry her love for Ron– feel as satisfying as the big moments. In the hands of others, the aforementioned scene might have felt like something out of a cheap soap opera. By virtue of the undeniable and real chemistry shared between Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint, it feels completely honest even amidst a smattering of CGI, magically conjured birds. The scene is capped off by a tracking shot depicting Hermione as Harry comforts her, then Ron as he spends time with his new girlfriend, and finally Draco as he stands alone in a tower, staring out into the beautiful landscapes surrounding Hogwarts.
Draco is perhaps this installment’s hidden weapon. He has never been given much of a character in the previous films (and indeed, the same is true of the books if we want to reference them) beyond being Harry’s evil foil. In Half-Blood Prince he is given, we learn, a dangerous task by none other than the Dark Lord himself. This could simply make him an even darker mirror version of our hero, but instead makes him a sympathetic reflection. He is a child, a teenager yes but still just a boy, being moved by forces much greater than him to achieve heights almost unimaginable for his age– not unlike Potter, who has had the looming shadow of his destiny hanging overhead for most of his life. Whereas before the two were merely set against one another, we now find them with something in common. Isolating himself in the washroom, Draco weeps openly and heavily in lamentation of his fate as decreed by Voldemort. He’s not a paragon of virtue by any means, but in the end he’s frightened just as anyone else would be in his place, and Felton’s performance earns our deserved compassion. It’s quite a remarkable turn for both character and actor.
Of course I would be remiss to overlook the work of Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn, the retired Hogwarts professor mentioned previously. We learn that he had an unfortunate involvement with Voldemort when the evil wizard was only a student at Hogwarts; Horace carries the guilt of the damage he believes he caused with him to this day, though he strongly denies any such involvement, going so far as to tamper with his own memories to throw those seeking the truth (to wit, Dumbledore and Harry) off of his tracks. There’s tragedy to Slughorn, a man who “collects” students who either have connections to important or famous people or whom he believes have the potential to achieve true greatness one day, and Broadbent makes the character’s grief quiet, beneath the surface, and yet tangible all the same.
None of this is to take anything away from the primary cast and the supporting players, among those being our heroic trio, Michael Gambon, and Alan Rickman. But each has consistently shone throughout the rest of the series; they have had much more screen time to develop and grow and truly understand their roles, and their characters have always been more involved in the progression of the plot. It is hard to imagine a Harry Potter other than Radcliffe, or a Hermione Granger other than Watson. We have gotten to know these youths so well for nearly the last decade that they aren’t simply actors playing a role– rather, they are their characters.
If the film has any problems worth mentioning, they would be in the reveals. Major, important pieces of plot, things that the film should truly hang on and even savor, are rushed through; most notably this can be seen in the film’s climax. Understandably, the film has to excise much of its source material, but the speed at which it leaps from some of its most essential moments is almost dizzying. There’s almost an urgency on Yates’ part to move on from Harry’s confrontation with Severus Snape to the aftermath of a tragedy at Hogwarts; it has the effect of diffusing the scene’s drama. And a brief and maybe just a little shocking duel between Draco and Harry is all but forgotten after we see its end result– for the rest of the film, its almost as if it never even happened. The movie is quite long on its own but it could have used a bit more polish and yes, probably just a little bit more time to let these scenes really breathe.
In spite of these troubles, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is almost undoubtedly the best film in the series to date. If anyone still has any fears about David Yates serving as the director for the rest of the series, this movie should easily assuage them. He’s done a tremendous job not only bringing J.K. Rowling’s world to life, but also making it his own; for the fans this means a faithful version of the original books that isn’t simply a repeat of them, something that adds new elements or further explores existing ones without sullying the source material. In fact, and I expect to draw the ire of die-hard Potter fans with this remark, in his treatment of Draco’s arc Yates has actually made the character all the more compelling than his literary counterpart, and Slughorn feels even more palatable on screen. It is uncommon enough for a director to do justice to a written work– but to improve upon it? That’s a real rarity.