Looking back at Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince

Is Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince the most underappreciated movie of the Potter franchise? Here's Mark's take on it...

Warning: this article contains spoilers for the film if you haven’t seen it yet.

David Yates stayed on as director for Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince, along with much of the previous film’s crew, but there was consternation at the news that Warner Bros was bumping the film from November 2008, in order to fill out its summer 2009 roster, a delay that Paramount had also made with JJ Abrams’ Star Trek.

After some initial unrest in fandom, the move eventually made the film one of the most anticipated of the series, coming after a two-year gap since the previous film and the publication of the final book in JK Rowling’s series, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. It’s to this film’s advantage that it’s the first of the series to be produced with full knowledge of the story’s ending.

But in February 2009, the news broke that The Deathly Hallows would be made into two films, reprising the once-mooted strategy for The Goblet Of Fire. With that in mind, The Half-Blood Prince becomes something like the first act of a concluding trilogy in the films. With the Ministry’s acceptance that Lord Voldemort is at large once more, the stage is set for another wizarding war.

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Having distanced himself from Harry in the previous year, Professor Dumbledore now takes a greater hand in his education, making trips into old memories of Voldemort via his magical Pensieve. Their hope is that the key to defeating him lies in his past, but the truth surprises both of them.

Elsewhere, the sixth year students of Hogwarts are falling in love, but one student is too preoccupied for romance and snogging. With his father locked up in Azkaban, Draco Malfoy has been given a vital and dangerous mission by Voldemort himself. But can he possibly hope to complete it?

Although The Half-Blood Prince is my favourite of Rowling’s novels, it must be difficult not to see this one as another stepping stone before the grand finale. Certainly, the filmmakers, who had milked every potential action sequence in the previous five films to make the stories as cinematic as possible, probably found this considerably more expository outing quite daunting.

Two invented action sequences are seemingly there to pick up the slack, but neither really has much impact after they’re through. The first, a Death Eater attack on the Millennium Bridge, intended to show us that Voldemort is going to take over the Muggle world too. But we never come back to that.

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The second, an attack on the Weasleys’ home, shows us that Harry isn’t safe outside of Hogwarts. But then he goes back to Hogwarts. Even if that’s a mark for the events of the following instalment, it’s weird to see action sequences that actually momentarily halt the story.

Steve Kloves returns to the fray as the series’ screenwriter, but retains all of the natural insight into the story that Yates seems to have in spades. The challenge of adapting this story is to re-establish a closeness between Harry and Dumbledore, more than just headmaster and student, but allies. And in the first thirty seconds, with an inspired call-back to the ending of the previous film, it does so.

As journalists, who had smeared the pair for all of the previous film, turn the room bright white with magical flashbulbs, Dumbledore places a reassuring arm around Harry and leads him away. Then the title card appears. No exposition. In fact, no dialogue at all. Just a brilliant prelude that establishes that relationship before we get into the Millennium Bridge collapsing.

This leaves the film free to spin several other plates. After the rather more deadpan approach of The Order Of The Phoenix, the comedic elements make a welcome return. Best of all the film’s offerings is the surprising slapstick of Harry and Ron being under the influence of different mood-elevating potions.

Daniel Radcliffe shows a surprising aptitude for stoner comedy after imbibing liquid luck, and Rupert Grint gets a nice setpiece in which he’s spiked with love potion. Such choices continue the series’ progression into young adulthood, and Yates finally cracks into teenage romance, towards which the previous two instalments only attempted foreplay.

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Harry’s romance with Ginny Weasley is problematic, what with a slight lack of chemistry between Radcliffe and Bonnie Wright. Still, I think it’s easier to root for Ron and Hermione’s burgeoning attraction to one another. This is mostly because there’s slightly more conflict there, with the introduction of Lavender, a doe-eyed and dopey girlfriend for Ron.

All of the comedic and romantic elements sit surprisingly well with the central horror story. Harry’s schoolmates are being cursed by an unknown assassin. Animated corpses are being unleashed. And at the heart of it all, we discover that Voldemort has split his soul into seven pieces in order to live forever.

Despite all of that contrast, Yates is too good a director, and Mark Day too good an editor to let those scenes clash. Not when they could sit as well together as they do here. Yates is abetted considerably by cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, whose approach got the series its first nomination for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards.

“Some of the sets are there since the very first Potter,” he told the Academy in an interview. “How could I light them in a different way? This question brought another one based on the series itself… I thought it would be interesting to have those very intimate stories amidst this very dark mood. As if the school was a dark character.”

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This approach feels brand new, alternately accentuating the horror in scary scenes and secreting snogging young couples in the cloisters of Hogwarts. If The Order Of The Phoenix wasn’t enough, this is Yates’ audition to direct the final chapter, proving his aptitude at balancing comedy and tragedy.

With Dumbledore effectively being Harry’s last remaining father figure, his prominence in this one finally gives Michael Gambon a chance to shine. Up to this point, some fans were still posting on message boards to say that the filmmakers should have employed a CGI version of the late Richard Harris instead of Gambon, whose performance was different and, therefore, wrong.

Gambon comfortably dispels such notions when given centre stage. By this point in the series, he’s been taken down from his pedestal as a wise, serene warlock. In the last film, we saw him duel fiercely. Increasingly, he has made mistakes that placed Harry in danger. As great as Harris was, I struggle to imagine his somnolent interpretation graduating into what Gambon pulls off here.

Around Hogwarts castle, the Slytherins are out in full force in this chapter, almost to make up for the non-appearance of Voldemort this time around. Oddly, it’s not as much a film about Alan Rickman as you’d think, considering Snape’s nickname is one half of the title. Still, Rickman is such a constant in the series that I don’t need to tell you how good he is with the screen time he has.

Jim Broadbent plays the former Potions Master and head of Slytherin, Horace Slughorn, called back into service both to replace Snape and to help Harry and Dumbledore with their fact-finding mission. Broadbent’s performance has great depth to it, playing a washed-up and bumbling socialite, out of touch with all of his old buddies and left to repent for the greatest mistake he ever made, in teaching the young Tom Riddle.

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It’s Tom Felton who benefits most, his Draco Malfoy finally being inflated into a proper character, rather than a sneering schoolyard bully. Felton is the film’s biggest revelation, once he gets to showcase what he can really do.

He approaches his mission, not with the cool detachment of his elder comrades, but with the panic-ridden angst of a scared little boy. He’s never better than in the climactic scene, stricken by grief and terror as he realises he has passed the point of no return, burnt his bridges and exploded his childhood forever.

The whole wrap-up to this one is tremendous too. In the last ten minutes, all of the following happens: Draco’s ambition fails him when Dumbledore shows him kindness, Harry decides to trust Snape for the first time, Snape betrays that trust by pitching Dumbledore off the Astronomy Tower, Snape reveals he is the Half-Blood Prince, off of whom Harry has been getting academic tips all year, and Harry, Ron and Hermione make a choice that propels them into adulthood.

In the novel, there’s another forty pages to go after the Half-Blood Prince is revealed. Fans once again made mountains out of the molehills that Yates and Kloves omitted from the book, the brunt of their indignation focused on the ending and Dumbledore’s funeral. Where the book outstays its welcome, the final scene of the film, like its opening shot, is a thing of beauty.

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As Fawkes the phoenix flies away from Hogwarts forever, and the score soars with him, the film comes to yet another downer ending. There hasn’t been a happy ending in these films since The Prisoner Of Azkaban, and this is the biggest downer we’d get until, well, the next film, really. This version is so achingly tender and foreboding, it’s hard to see why anyone would want a superfluous funeral scene instead.

It’s clear that Steve Kloves has got better at writing these films in his absence. His omissions are more economical, and his additions are much better. Echoing Lupin’s fondness for Harry’s mother, invented for The Prisoner Of Azkaban, Kloves donates the film’s most emotional scene to Slughorn.

Sitting at Hagrid’s table, he recounts a gift he was given by Lily Potter, and the moment he realised she’d been killed. Broadbent knocks it out of the park in his delivery. It’s a beautiful moment. In keeping with the balance of the rest of the film, that scene occurs right after Harry’s encounter with liquid luck.

Not that Kloves makes a perfect transition. It’s certainly his best screenplay for the series so far, but I can’t help but think Michael Goldenberg wrote the best screenplay of all of them, on his first and only run at it on The Order Of The Phoenix. Kloves’ version leaves Ron slightly underserved. His last line of dialogue is forty-five minutes before the end of the film.

To carry on proclaiming different films to be the best all week would be reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition sketch, so it’s important to make distinctions here. Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince is one of my favourites of the series, because it’s full of well observed moments and neat adaptations from the source.

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It has neither the momentum of The Order Of The Phoenix, nor the courage to dispense with unnecessary action sequences and Quidditch matches. On the other hand, it has some of the very best performances from the regular cast, a cracking script, and a moody and thrilling aesthetic that keeps pace with the more mature storyline.

With the boon of knowing which parts would play into the final book, Yates builds The Half-Blood Prince so that it leads right to the penultimate film. The question that remains to be answered is how well Part 1 and Part 2 work as a whole adaptation of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows.

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See more of our Looking Back articles here.