Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
I've read all the Harry Potter books, and seen all of the movies, and am a big fan, so it's no surprise I was very satisfied with the new film. It's not the best Harry Potter movie, though it is made from one of the best books, but it is quite interesting and entertaining.
The film starts and ends with the symbol of the Death Eaters, the servants of the Dark Lord, Voldemort, in the sky overhead. In a scene reminiscent of Superman II, the first appearance is in the Muggle world, over London, as three streams of black smoke descend, each carrying Death Eaters who wreak havoc on the city. Then we cut to Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), flirting with an attractive waitress in a coffee shop, before his assignation is cut short by the appearance of Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, incredible) across the street, who has news and an important errand for Harry to help him with.
Open warfare between the forces of good and evil finally broke out in the last film, which was very much a superhero film in the Superman or X-Men mold, but the superteam from that film has suffered casualties and setbacks, and the new film is more meditative, and focused on three main characters, Harry Potter, of course, Dumbledore, and the new Professor of Potions, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent, perfect), who, in the tradition of all new Hogwarts professors, has a secret.
I have to admit, though I've read all the books once, I don't have a very good working knowledge of all of the details and plot points which might differ or be condensed from the book, so I can't comment much on specific faithfulness, but in general, Half-Blood Prince seems to me faithful to the spirit and the general story.
Lots of it is about school politics, the nature and propriety of relationships between teachers and students, what is learned in school, and what should be learned in school, and the difference between school and the real world. There are also some love-relationship subplots which are amusing and relevant to the larger themes, and blocks of Voldemort's backstory which are quite effective and also underpin the main ideas. Broadbent in particular is just right as Professor Slughorn, a well-meaning and avuncular but slightly creepy teacher who has trouble finding the lines between instructor/student interactions and friendship. This contrasts well with Dumbledore's deft handling of the tensions between his duties as headmaster of Hogwarts and magical mentor, and ally of Harry in some messy and dangerous skirmishes with Voldemort and company.
In director Yates's hands, this film feels much more expressionistic than any of the previous films. Instead of detailed explorations of the films arcane settings, we get symbolically and visually arresting composed frames which seem to contain and magnify the action, rather than meandering through the halls of Hogwarts or the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. In some ways, this is missed, but in other ways, it's quite effective. Many of the scenes echo the great illustrations of Mary GrandPré for the books, and this is quite well done, too.
It's no spoiler to say that a character who, along with Harry Potter, has been most instrumental and knowledgeable about the fight against the reemergence of Voldemort and the Death Eaters dies at the end of this film. The final appearance of the Death's Head in the clouds announces this triumph for the forces of evil, and also foreshadows the fight ahead without this character's guidance, as Harry Potter becomes the central focus of the battle.
One might have wished for more of the flashier magic of past films, flying cars, magical creatures in action, a wizard tournament, and also a bit more of a feeling of Hogwarts as a school, as that is much of what the film is about, but none of these things seriously detract from the fun and action of the film. It did seem to be the first film in which a good working knowledge of the books would have helped some, that the telling of the story was perhaps a bit too insiderish, but again, it's a very good film.
My official rating of Harry Potter films in order of quality would be: Order of the Phoenix (5), Prisoner of Azkaban (3), Half-Blood Prince (6), Goblet of Fire (4), Chamber of Secrets (2), Sorceror's Stone (1). Yates is an excellent director, and the last book only contains more weirdness and fun, so I'm glad he's set to helm the final two films adapted from that book.
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