‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’ movie review: best Potter film to date

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince might be the best Potter film yet; but don’t take my word for it, I’ve read none of J.K. Rowling’s books, nor really liked any of the earlier entries, though Sorcerer’s Stone was a successful introduction to this richly detailed world, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban brought a sense of wonder that I felt the other films lacked. 

From a non-fan’s perspective, however, the last two – especially Order of the Phoenix – represented a fair amount of tedium. But not Half-Blood Prince, despite being directed by Phoenix helmer David Yates, and written for the screen by Steven Kloves, who has adapted all the previous films save for Phoenix

Prince is a much tighter, carefully constructed, leisurely-but-fluidly paced adaptation that returns much of the focus to its varied primary characters rather than internal Hogwarts politics, and it’s all the better for it. It’s two-and-a-half hours long, and there’s barely enough plot here for a film half that length, but it’s never boring. 

Half-Blood Prince picks up right where Phoenix left off, without much exposition for those who haven’t seen or no longer intimately recall the previous film. After a group of Death Eaters wreak havoc in London and in the wizard realm, Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) steals Harry away from a pretty young waitress for an important mission: to find Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), former potions professor at Hogwarts. 

Slughorn, you see, taught a certain Tom Riddle, the young boy who went on to become Voldemort, who killed Harry’s parents and is behind all the evil currently going on. Harry and Dumbledore find Slughorn and convince him to come back to teach at Hogwarts, but that’s only part of the battle: Harry must now get him to reveal precious memories of Riddle, and then use these memories in his quest against Voldemort. 

This is the main story thrust of Half-Blood Prince, but only a fraction of what’s going on in the film. Other threads include the varied adolescent romances between the students of Hogwarts, the ever-brewing animosity between Harry and Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), and Harry and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), who is now guiding Malfoy, and excursions with other characters from the series, including the Weasley family, Rufus (David Thewlis), Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), and others. 

All the storylines are wonderfully composed; this is easily the most engrossing film in the series. And I was surprised to find how much I had come to care about these characters: Hermione (Emma Watson), who is being wooed by Cormac McLaggen (Freddie Stroma) but in love with Ron (Rupert Grint), who is in turn wooed by Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave); and Harry, who seems to have feelings for Hermoine, but also Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) and maybe some other members of the young female cast.

It’s all Beverly Hills 90210 puppy love stuff, but it works – a large amount of the runtime is devoted to these relationships, and they all ring true. As does Harry’s Christ-like struggle with acknowledging he is The Chosen One, which is quite nicely contrasted with his antithesis: Draco Malfoy, struggling with his Chosen One status for the dark side. Draco has always felt like a cookie-cutter villain, but he’s been given a lot more depth here. 

The style and tone of Half-Blood Prince – dark and brooding – matches the previous film; I had some issues with the direction that film had taken, but maybe I’ve gotten used to it. Cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie, Across the Universe) is often striking. 

Certain scenes, like Harry and Dumbledore’s journey through a dark cavern, are exquisitely staged. One problem persists: the internal logic of these films, mostly concerning the magic. Perhaps this is better explained in the novels, but I have little idea of what is and isn’t possible in this world, and when two characters are throwing magic spells at each other I have little grasp of the real danger of the situation. 

In one scene, Harry creates some water in a bowl, then tries in vain to scoop it out with a shell. Why didn’t he just create the water in the shell? But there are two other issues I’ve taken with the previous Potter films: J.K. Rowling’s world, which feels cobbled together from aspects of witchcraft and fantasy and mythology rather than an independent or original work, and the plot of each individual film, which came across as Scooby Doo mysteries (“and I would’ve gotten away with it if weren’t for you kids!”) 

The world already established, and the plot taken in a different direction, neither of these bothered me this time around. I’m pretty sure I know what’s going to happen in the next installment(s). But for the first time in the series, I’m interested in finding out.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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