Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Professor McGonagall: [to Harry, Ron, and Hermione] Why is it, when something happens, it is always you three?
Ron Weasley: Believe me, Professor. I’ve been asking myself the same question for six years.
“Half-Blood Prince” is a “Potter” installment firing on all cylinders. This is immediately noticeable as expository sequences prior to our stepping inside the great walls of Hogwarts dare to show a roadmap of critical elements that define this entry, from Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) persuading an old friend, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), a man who was close to Voldemort (then Tom Riddle) when he was a student, to join the faculty as a Potions professor; Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), whose father is now imprisoned in Azkaban due to the tragic events in “Order of the Phoenix,” being recruited as a Death Eater; to Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) agreeing to partake in an Unbreakable Vow—to break it is to die. Steve Kloves’ screenplay is so purposeful and efficient, it leaves little room to breathe. A feeling of utmost urgency results.
This is the most curious-looking Potter film. On the surface, colors are muted. Hues of grayish, pale yellow abound and so when the color red or bright purple appears, our eyes are drawn straight to it. It is not afraid to look dark, to make the audience squint. Consider Slughorn’s Potions class; it looks and feels like we are sitting in a dungeon. On top of this, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel is generous in employing blur in order create an impression that we are looking into a dream or a memory. This is particularly salient when Dumbledore takes Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) into one of his memories through a Pensieve. Inside the recollection is Dumbledore getting acquainted with Voldemort as a young boy.
Observe the scene carefully. It seems uncomfortable to show the old man and the orphan within the same frame, as if to communicate that these two are not meant to mix. Distance decreases between the two bodies—to a point—but we feel that what they wish to protect about themselves are in entirely different rooms. And when they do share a frame, one of them is always blurred. Why is this? It creates a sense of unease, slowly at first… then at an alarming level. The longer we bathe in the memory, there is an increasingly heavy portentous feeling. And yet—we wish for it to go on because the exchange is fascinating and ultimately revealing. What else does the Hogwarts headmaster know about the child who will become the greatest dark wizard of all time?
The picture never eases up on applying tension. “Half-Blood Prince” is especially known for its comedy—and it is very funny—because the characters we have gotten to know and love have begun to embrace and execute romantic feelings. Yes, there are plenty of awkward moments, love potions gone wrong, mismatched dates… but on the flip side are unrequited feelings, the anguish of seeing someone you really want to know on a deeper level deciding to snog someone else, and the unbearable agony of your person of interest never looking at you the way you look at him or her.
The surface is comedy but the core is a drama filled to the brim with searingly honest moments. Especially beautiful is how Hermione (Emma Watson), clearly the most mature of the trio, allows herself to be vulnerable so that Ron (Rupert Grint) might have a chance of seeing her as more than a friend—more than a convenient friend, to be precise. Having Hermione play against type is a masterstroke in this entry; we are so used to seeing her opening books instead of opening herself up for human connections. Meanwhile, Harry has his eyes on Ginny (Bonnie Wright). While this connection is also intriguing, it does not reach the heights of Hermione’s longing.
Curiosities do not stop there. What about the cabinet that Draco finds in The Room of Requirement? He puts an apple inside and closes the door. A couple of seconds pass. He then proceeds to open the door and finds that the apple had been bitten into. Next, Draco decides to put a chirping bird inside… Harry got his hands on an old Potions textbook with all sorts of scribblings, diagrams, and spells. Based on what’s written inside, it used to belong to a so-called “Half-Blood Prince.” Without the helpful tips therein, Harry would not have excelled in Slughorn’s class. So who is the Half-Blood Prince? And, more importantly, does it matter so much considering the fact that war is looming straight ahead? Speaking of Slughorn, this man has a habit of “collecting” students, those who he suspects will become great or famous one day. What is his precise connection to Tom Riddle?
David Yates’ “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” brings up so many questions—and answers—that it cannot be denied it is rich with content. It offers humor, excitement, suspense, genuine moments of peril, and devastating losses. It is beautiful to peer into; I wished every “Harry Potter” film looked like it. But perhaps the fact that it does not is precisely why it is special. Does it include every critical element from J.K. Rowling’s novel? No. But as a film, it works on every level. It feels and acts like a culmination of what came before while serving as a bridge to the final chapter.