Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Things bloom and things wither in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” the sixth big-screen rendering of J.K. Rowling's seven-volume literary phenomenon. What's surely dead and gone is any trace of the sprightly and sparkly kids stuff from Chris Columbus' “Sorcerer's Stone” and “Chamber of Secrets.” What's blossomed in its place is a black rose of fantasy-horror that's as deadly serious as the darkest parts of Peter Jackson's “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Handled with great care by “Order of the Phoenix” helmer David Yates and crafted to visual perfection, “Half-Blood Prince” is a very strong, very confident film, one that doesn't take itself lightly but also knows how to very effectively lighten itself up. It is the best movie in the series since Alfonso Cuaron's “Prisoner of Azkaban.” But it is also very long and at times overconfident, milking its newfound sophistication for every dime by dawdling with lesser story elements instead of bloody getting down to business. After a stellar first half, I eventually felt as if this movie kept grabbing me and then letting me go. But when it had me in its clutches, it took me to some beautiful, thrilling, funny, profound and surprisingly scary places.
When “Half-Blood Prince” begins, only a week has gone by since the climactic battle in “Order of the Phoenix,” which ended with – among other things – the death of Harry Potter's godfather, the mysterious Sirius Black. From there, things only grow gloomier, as the Death Eaters – super-villain Lord Voldemort's nasty, jet stream-producing minions – tear up the streets of London and begin formulating the ultimate plot to infiltrate the beloved Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, an act that would afford them the opportunity to commit one very dastardly deed. In need of an inside man, the baddies tap Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), Harry's classmate and longtime rival who's still rocking that “Village of the Damned” look. All but confirming the popular belief that he's mighty evil on the inside, Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) vows to protect Malfoy as he attempts to carry out that deed (which, in case you couldn't tell, is intentionally cryptic). Everyone at Hogwarts knows full well that trouble's a-brewin', especially wise old headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), whose asked a former faculty member, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), to return to the school for reasons beyond his potion-making skills. Slughorn alone holds a crucial memory regarding Voldemort's past, and it's up to Harry to extract the memory and use it to combat the enemy. That is, after he's finished navigating Hogwarts' increasingly hormone-filled hallways and reading the magic spell cheat sheets of a guy who calls himself the Half-Blood Prince.
This movie possesses a great deal of gravity, more than any of the other “Potter” titles. I found the experience of it to be as weighty and legitimate as, say, a gritty war drama or a gripping political thriller. It's clear that everyone involved believes wholeheartedly in the material, approaching it with the utmost earnestness and artistic integrity. In doing so, they've finally made a believer out of me, a casual “Potter” viewer at best. Yates – who will also direct parts I and II of the “Deathly Hallows” finale – has visualized Rowling's sixth tome in a mature yet still very magical way, and he's got his entire cast and crew working on his wavelength. Apart from a somewhat overly tidy epilogue, series regular Steve Kloves' script skirts the easy banter and avoids talking down to viewers. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel – a new recruit who in the past has shot gorgeous stuff like “Amélie” and “Across the Universe” – drapes the film in foreboding shadow and adds glowing tinges of copper and silver, arriving at an exquisite look that is both eerie and enchanting. Thrown in the mix are a few extraordinary action set pieces, which are all the more outstanding since the movie is relatively effects-light.
In the acting department, Rickman remains the most devilishly entertaining as the slippery Snape, and Broadbent creates a very memorable character as the charmingly paranoid Slughorn. Emma Watson continues to exhibit talent beyond her years as the by-the-book Hermione Granger, while Helena Bonham Carter is dread in a dress as the freaky and unhinged Death Eater Bellatrix LeStrange. Of everybody, I was most impressed by Harry himself, Daniel Radcliffe, who's grown into quite an accomplished actor. Perhaps baring it all on stage in “Equus” sharpened his chops. Or maybe he's been playing Harry for so long that he knows the character through and through. Whatever the contributing factors, Radcliffe has developed a commanding screen presence. Scene for scene, he matches his co-stars, many of whom are among the most celebrated British thesps in the business.
As “Half-Blood Prince” presses on (inching ever closer to the end of its 153-minute duration), all this grown-up dramatic weight, all this talent working in tandem, begins to yield some endurance-testing results. I'm all for a fantasy flick that takes the time to nurture its nuances, but this one takes a little too much time. Running parallel to the looming threat of Voldemort is the brighter element of teenage romance, which is blossoming all across Hogwarts. “Half-Blood Prince” throws out in the open attractions that were only hinted at in the past, and many of the developments therein are sweet, honest and amusing. But we start to realize that there's quite a bit of talking and snogging going on, and by the time we reach some of the meatier plot progressions (like the revelation and extraction of that crucial memory, for example), it feels well overdue. This movie establishes an ominous tone in frame one and keeps on reminding us that it's barreling toward SOMETHING BIG. But as it burrows deeper into its second act, its momentum starts to wane, as does our patience. It bounces back, and when it takes off, it truly soars, but the tarnishes left by those low points are unfortunately un-ignorable.
As I said, I'm no Potterhead, but I've an enormous amount of respect for the Potter universe (or “Potterverse,” as it's affectionately called). What Rowling created is one of the great treasures of modern storytelling, and the film franchise it spawned has become an ever-evolving, ever-improving cinematic saga. As the days pass, I find myself thinking a lot about “Half-Blood Prince,” flaws or no flaws. It is an unexpectedly powerful piece of work, and I continue to relive parts of it my head while strongly considering seeing it again. You could say it cast a spell.