Film Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Even with two films still to come – for anyone outside the loop, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is getting the bifurcated Kill Bill treatment – the sixth installment of Harry Potter sees the stakes rising, the danger increasing, and nothing much left to be taken for granted by our wizard hero except for his two best friends.

Appropriately, then, the curtains close at the end of it all with the three of them staring off into the distance from the ramparts of Hogwarts like castle defenders anticipating the next siege. (And we know it’s coming, because He Who Ought Not To Be Named doesn’t even deign to make an appearance in this chapter of the story.) But what comes before, making up the meat and potatoes of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is a mixed bag, as with so much of this series.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Directed by David Yates.
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Tom Felton, Jim Broadbent.

First of all, if you aren't a devout Potterite, some of it will go over your head. For example, if you expect the nature or importance (or anything but the identity) of the eponymous half-blood prince to be illuminated, you will leave the theatre disappointed. On the other hand, if you've ever asked what London would look like while travelling at Mach 3 through the downtown core, there’s your answer right in the first five minutes.
Half-Blood Prince contains hardly any significant plot development, despite the two and a half hours of running time. This is largely because the narrative attempts to straddle a burgeoning teenage love story, a flashback-laden mystery, and the fantastical world-building the series has become known for (deservedly or not).

In so splitting its objectives, the film can't help but fall short of the ideal mark in all of them, despite coming tantalizingly close in some cases.

The long and the short of it, as plot goes, is that Dumbledore and Harry stumble upon the secret to Lord Voldemort’s seeming immortality while trying to foil the machinations of Draco Malfoy, Bellatrix Lestrange, and other ne’er-do-wells.

This nefarious roster, it turns out, may even include the imperious and inscrutable Professor Snape (a part utterly owned by Alan Rickman).

But for all the excitement, the film is bogged down by its investment in the angst-ridden, lovelorn Hogwarts atmosphere, to the extent that details important to the larger plot get glossed over, as if the writers suffered from the same hormonal lack of perspective plaguing the student body. A couple of uninspired quidditch matches and an inconsequential crush by Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) don’t help the time pass, either.

That said, the film-making is beyond reproach; it is the source material that is the weakest link. Rowling makes use of one or two maudlin plot devices which will be enough that anyone lacking a dedicated Harry Potter bookshelf is likely to wish the story had been rejiggered even more to fit the conventions and constraints of the screen.

Some of the acting, particularly by Daniel Radcliffe as Harry and Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley, is spotty and inconsistent – marvelous in parts, almost embarrassing in others. Robbie Coltrane as Rubeus Hagrid and Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood are bright spots amongst the lesser-known cast, making up for any weak bits on the part of the young stars.

And let’s not forget that having an all-star supporting cast of British veterans never hurt. Michael Gambon positively shines as Dumbledore, who finally gets the screen-time he deserves by drawing Harry (and by extension, the narrative) into a secret and dangerous quest to render Voldemort vulnerable. And Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, though her part is smaller this time around, radiates a gleefully destructive impulse – almost infectious even though she’s a baddie – we haven’t seen from her since Merlin in 1998.

Ultimately, Half-Blood Prince succeeds in setting up for the grand finale, due in the fall of next year (the first half, anyway). Newcomers may feel as though they are missing much of the references – indeed, a Cliff’s Notes would scarcely suffice to fill in all of the backstory, but that is not to say it is at all incoherent.
And after all, with the millions of diehard aficionados who have clamoured for every new installment of Harry Potter, perhaps pleasing the fans first and foremost is the right approach.