Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/20/09 20:04:31

"Better and better."
5 stars (Awesome)

There’s a great risk that as we go deeper into the “Harry Potter” saga, the series will lose its sense of fun. After all, the movies, like the books before them, have grown up with their fans, each chapter reaching darker complexities; could the joyous sense of wonder we felt early in the series be slipping away?

Ah, but there’s no worry here: “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is such brilliant fun. It’s bursting at the seams with liveliness and warm humor, and I had forgotten in the two years since the last film just how funny these movies can be. As the lead characters stumble their way through their awkward teen years, this sixth film in the series and its cast (still as brilliant as ever) allow themselves to admit the silliness of young love.

Our heroes, having tiptoed around young romance the last time around, find themselves in the middle of the whole range of crushes, heartache, and the joy of snogging - it’s hormones at Hogwarts. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, as if you didn’t know) is pining for Ginny (Bonnie Wright), younger sister to best pal Ron (Rupert Grint), who’s caught the eye of Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) while being too thick to notice Hermione’s (Emma Watson) own affections for him. It’s all a mess, as all young love is, and screenwriter Steve Kloves (returning to the franchise after skipping the last film) and director David Yates (who helmed “Order of the Phoenix” and who will return for “The Deathly Hollows”) allow “Half-Blood Prince” the breathing room it needs to find both the awkward comedy and honest heartbreak that comes with such emotions.

(Watch how joyously the film treats the notion of growing up. Yes, you have to deal with responsibilities and inescapable danger, especially if you’re the Chosen One, as Harry accepts himself to be - but you also get the perks of running the school’s Quidditch team and knowingly smiling as you watch all the first-year brats run around the crowded hallways. The latter scene goes by in a blink, but it so effortlessly captures the tone of Harry’s sixth year.)

Joining the cast is Jim Broadbent, who adds his own brand of comic relief as the bumbling potions professor Horace Slughorn. Broadbent plays him as absent-minded but huggable, a friendly face whose scatterbrained antics lighten what’s essentially a somber (and seriously essential) role as someone whose guidance is critical, and as someone hiding crucial secrets regarding the villainous Voldemort.

Indeed, much of the lightness and humor in “Half-Blood Prince” is so very vital, as it cushions us from the great dangers the film also presents. It’s like the novelty shop Ron’s older brothers have opened up in the otherwise empty Diagon Alley: an escapist bustle of good humor locked away amid the danger. (Shops have been closing in the area, you see, due to increasing attacks from those nasty Death-Eaters.)

As light and fun as the film gets, it also manages to get dreadful (in the literal meaning of the word). There’s one brief scene here, where a student is temporarily possessed by an evil curse, and the imagery involved - wide eyes, gaping moth, a moan of pure horror - is perhaps the most frightening thing I’ve seen on film in the last year or two. Yates does not back away from the darkness that encroaches throughout the story, as Voldemort’s henchmen move ever.

Voldemort himself does not show his face in this chapter, not counting a few ominous clouds. Instead, we get more of Bellatrix Lestrange, who appeared all too quickly last time around. With more screen time, we can now see what Helena Bonham Carter is doing with the role, crafting such a magnificent character and a truly frightening villain, a madwoman who looks like she’s being evil just for the fun of it. Her insanity has an enchanting quality to it, at least when she’s not succumbing to total anarchy, just for kicks.

Also compelling is Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). Felton hasn’t been allowed to do much with his character in the previous films; he’s always sat on the edges, sneering and whining, being more of a limp school bully than an actual adversary. No longer: Draco becomes the tragic villain of “Half-Blood Prince,” his family connections locking him into an unwanted deal with the devil. He’s forced into doing Voldemort’s bidding, which he does through tears, painfully admitting his distaste for the assignment and his inability to avoid it, and how wonderful it is when we get to actually care about the bad guy. Felton’s performance is superb, making up for years of lost time with the character and the actor.

To get to that point, Kloves’ screenplay (and, of course, J.K. Rowling’s original work) casually floats around its central plot, which is surprisingly simple: Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) needs Harry to help figure out memories of a pre-Voldemort Tom Riddle (played at various flashback ages by Hero Finnes-Tiffin and Frank Dillane), which leads to the revelation of the Dark Lord’s secret weakness. Kloves allows the story to revel in its sidetracks, romantic diversions, and red herrings - there are numerous out-of-nowhere moments, like one involving a funeral for a giant spider, that work more like much-needed breathers than essential plot development; even the mystery surrounding the identity of the mysterious Half-Blood Prince is played out on the sidelines - and it’s clear the movie is careful in building the right mood.

Its climax, then, initially seems to lack the proper build-up; Dumbledore asks Harry to join him on a perilous mission into Voldemort territory, and the request feels sudden and awkward. But looking back, the lead-ins were there all along, with the headmaster biding his time, knowing when to strike and when to have others work for him. We’ve seen Dumbledore’s cunning before, but never quite so clearly and so boldly as it is here, his manipulations serving as the core of the story. It’s a tone that’s thankful in part to the recasting of the role following Richard Harris’ death; Harris, wonderful though he was in the part, felt like a kindly grandfather, but Gambon, why, he always looks like he’s up to something.

For the first time in the series, this “Potter” allows itself to not wrap up so conveniently. (I’m not the first to notice the can’t-be-coincidental similarities to the final shots of “Half-Blood Prince” and “The Empire Strikes Back.”) We’ve come to the point in the saga where the final chapter can no longer be ignored, and so the film ends by looking ahead, not to summer vacation, but the dangers that certainly await. Even now, with audiences raised on “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” being used to such open-endedness, this sort of finale can be a risk, but Yates and company pull it off with great ease. We leave the theater with the rush of breathless anticipation mixed with a pinch of worry - we know that next time, comic relief might be enough to brighten the darkness.

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