REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince [2009]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG | Runtime: 153 minutes | Release Date: July 15th, 2009 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): David Yates
Writer(s): Steve Kloves / J.K. Rowling (novel)

“The binding is really fragile”

It’s a real shame that I could never give a film featuring Harry Potter the status of a perfect film. Each tale relies so heavily on those that came before or after so one can never be a truly all-encompassing work. The three-act structure can be utilized, but watching a middle installment alone will leave you confused and disoriented without the background info or knowledge that more will be coming. The reason I bring this up is the fact that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is good enough to warrant the praise and to put the idea in my head about whether to call it a masterpiece. The tone is perfect, the laughs are plenty, and the darkness charcoal black. How could this be the same director (David Yates) as the abysmal by comparison to the rest of the series Order of the Phoenix?. One name: Bruno Delbonnel.

Who is Delbonnel you ask? Well, he’s the brilliant cinematographer behind the camera. I may have blamed the failures of the fifth film on its screenplay as Steve Kloves was glaringly absent, (he being the writer of each other film, including this newest one), but a film is a team effort. Therefore I guess maybe I shouldn’t put all my praise on one man now. I just feel absolutely compelled to do it because so many moments linger in my mind due to the beauty of their composition and use of their environments to stay interesting and exciting throughout. You cannot be bored visually here. It just goes to show that it’s never the director alone, but also the team he or she brings along. I like Yates and was surprised at how much I disliked his first foray in the Potter universe—granted, I felt the book itself was sub-par at best. Thankfully, he did not disappoint with his second of three, (make that four as book seven goes to a two-part finale), because—as it was with the novels—Half-Blood Prince is by far the best of the series (unless Deathly Hallows does even better). And adding the pedigree of a guy like Delbonnel with films such as Across the Universe, A Very Long Engagement, and Amélie in his back pocket (all stunning works of art) only makes his job easier.

I can’t get over the use of close-ups throughout or the multiple instances of framing used to hide something onscreen. Oftentimes the camera pans or cuts to reveal something in the fringes, to highlight the focal point when it’s not centrally located, or literally move our eyes to exactly where the filmmakers want them to be. The blocking is superb with some scenes blurring the edges and keeping only our main object of interest in focus, timing and positioning executed with aplomb. And did I mention the close-ups? (Yes, I know I did.) One sequence with Harry and Ginny running through a field of tall grass after intruding Death Eaters is shot with a high speed pan to keep the characters crisp as the foliage darts and blurs in their wake. I’d be remiss not to mention the special effects as well, especially when dealing with the black smoke trails from Voldemort’s flying goons and the wispy pensieve. Whether completely computer-generated or practical dye clouds in water, the effect is pitch perfect. Each memory even dissolves in sections to leave important pieces like young Tom Riddle lingering just a second longer than the rest.

But wait: there’s actually a story and actors involved too. J.K. Rowling truly stunned me by having this book be as good as it was after such a poor effort with Phoenix (a book that in my opinion added nothing to the saga and could even be skipped without missing a beat). She reinvigorated my love for the story. Half-Blood Prince is where we find out exactly who has the stomach to fight and who does not. Many say they are ready for the dark times ahead, but not all realize those times have arrived and that they need to have the fortitude to do what’s necessary now. Introductions to those fighting with the Dark Lord—who is absent this go around—are made nicely with Dave Legeno’s Fenrir Greyback looking as menacing as I imagined with the roles of Malfoy (I really liked Tom Felton here showing some nice range and rough emotional turmoil) and Snape (Alan Rickman great as ever) leading the tale to come closer to fruition. War is upon the magical world, sides have been chosen, and it all will reach its apex a year from now.

As for the leads: Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson are solid as usual (Radcliffe showing some solid comedic chops after taking luck elixir) while Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley gets some room to break free. But it’s the supporting roles that deserve notice. Helena Bonham Carter will scare children, so kudos to her, and Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore will win even more hearts as his leader finally allows Potter into the inner circle of the plan to rid the world of Voldemort—it now being a circle of two. It is newcomer Jim Broadbent, however, as Professor Slughorn who steals the show. Broadbent is known for his many comical expressions and his rubber face is utilized to great effect here. A blowhard and man with many “friends”, his jubilant smile and need to collect powerful and famous wizards for his Slug Club are ever-present to bring some levity as well as effectively hide a dark secret lying beneath.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince succeeds in the details. It’s an exercise in minimalism that shows only what’s necessary to the plot. Condensing the novel better than ever before, Kloves has given Yates the tools to make a film and not just a visual representation of words. What had previously been done best by Azkaban’s Alfonso Cuarón, this one works better at retaining more subplots and not stripping it quite so bare. With subtle moments such as Death Eaters being bounced off the force field around Hogwarts to Malfoy’s footsteps disappearing on the Marauder’s Map left visible in the corner of the frame to the hourglass’ sand standing still when the subject of Voldemort is brought up to Slughorn to the photograph of a black cliff amidst water in young Tom Riddle’s orphanage room, the seeds are planted in our psyches to be activated later. No longwinded exposition is needed to make the audience feel stupid and lectured towards. Instead Yates and crew allow us to show our intelligence and ability to use our eyes and memories to piece things together, making the experience more enjoyable as we believe we are solving the mysteries as the director skillfully guides us through. I’d say it couldn’t get better than this, but my confidence in Yates has been renewed and my hopes that Deathly Hallows is treated with respect is at one hundred percent. So who knows what the future has to offer?

[1] (L-R) ALAN RICKMAN as Professor Severus Snape, EMMA WATSON as Hermione Granger, RUPERT GRINT as Ron Weasley, DANIEL RADCLIFFE as Harry Potter and MAGGIE SMITH as Professor Minerva McGonagall in Warner Bros. Pictures’ fantasy adventure “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” Photo by Jaap Buitendijk
[2] JIM BROADBENT as Professor Horace Slughorn and MICHAEL GAMBON as Professor Albus Dumbledore in Warner Bros. Pictures’ fantasy adventure “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[3] Dark clouds swirl over Hogwarts in a scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ fantasy adventure “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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