Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth film in the Potter franchise, begins with the same ominous sense of darkness that pervaded the opening of the last film. Here, the Death Eaters, who previously have been situated exclusively within the magical realm, extend their reach and wreak havoc on the muggle world. The point? No one is safe. Also like in the last Harry Potter film, this one starts with the titular boy wizard (Daniel Radcliffe, improving as an actor with each subsequent film) in solitude, here hanging out in a late-night cafe, attempting to pick up an interested young waitress — a lingering hint of the raging hormones that defined the most recent installment. But this scene of serenity is quickly interrupted by the appearance of Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), who whisks Harry (who’s just scored a date) away at a breakneck pace that never lets up until the end. Indeed, Half-Blood Prince‘s pacing is the most immediately noticeable change this time out. The franchise’s first cinematic adaptation, Sorcerer’s Stone, followed its source material very closely, introducing both the initiated and uninitiated to author J.K. Rowling’s magical world of wizardry through meticulous detail and unending character introductions. In contrast, the next four films in the series (excepting maybe the exceedingly overlong Chamber of Secrets) exhibit a willingness to liberally cut material from the books in favor of more more streamlined storytelling. Half-Blood Prince, while clocking in as the second longest of all the films, still moves briskly thanks to screenwriter Steve Kloves and director David Yates (also responsible for the last film) who here cut less, edit more, and even make some welcome additions to their source material. The result is an impressively constructed film (replete with some fantastic action sequences) that reaches the end of its near three-hour runtime well before most viewers will begin to feel it length.
Even devoted fans of the novels should appreciate a brief primer on the plot at work here, particularly as Half-Blood Prince is more of a transitional work than the six other books (likewise the film) with perhaps the least dramatic stand-alone plot: It follows Harry as he works closely with Dumbledore in investigating Voldemort’s past; as he becomes head of his Potions class thanks to a used textbook edited by the titular (and morally dubious) “Prince”; and as Dumbledore tasks him with procuring important information from fresh-out-of-retirement Professor Horace Slughorn (a wild-eyed Jim Broadbent). Oh, and of course young love is in full bloom, as Harry and best friends Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) all feel the pangs of heartache. As ever, the acting from all principals bests each film before it: Radcliffe is turning into a curious star, demonstrating both depth and restraint (rare in young actors), and even exercising some previously untapped comedic chops. Grint is in fine form as always, being the most effortlessly talented actor out of the three leads, but it’s Watson who steals the film, as her emotionally-charged part leads her through pangs heretofore unseen in the franchise. Broadbent, too, is memorable, both genuinely hilarious and haunted as the loopy and perpetually nervous professor, a loose but reminiscent riff on the British thespian’s eccentric work in Topsy-Turvy and Moulin Rouge! And while Alan Rickman predictably delivers his calculatingly precise blend of eerie and inscrutable as Snape, there’s a new central baddie this time around: if Potter is “The Chosen One” to take down Voldemort, his classmate Draco could here be referred to as “The One Chosen,” as he has tapped by Voldemort specifically to perform a special, dangerous task. And as Draco, now burdened with responsibility and moral crisis, Tom Felton is exceptional, for the first time becoming a character of real substance and nuance.
But this deep into the franchise, acting and character development should be locked in like this. What’s more impressive about Half-Blood Prince is the level of technical achievement on display: DP Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie), a rookie to the Potter universe, shoots this installment brilliantly, taking more care with the film’s visual design, favoring aquamarine hues that beautifully enhance the film’s darker, more adult tone, and make the vibrancy of his spare reds and oranges all the more striking. The plentiful CGI effects — arguably even more successful in its small strokes; the visual recalibration of spellwork that Yates and co. introduced in Order of the Phoenix is a game-changer — are just as impressive, and more consistently awe-inspiring than in any other entry, capturing a certain grandiosity despite the interior-heavy location of the film. Likewise, composer Nicholas Hooper’s music represents a new direction for the franchise, lending the film a distinctly epic character in moments — most notably on display during a climactic cave sequence — while also establishing moments of levity that have largely been absent since the first film: the film’s strongest sonic sequence comes when a raucous Quidditch afterparty seamlessly bleeds into a composition of lovesick melancholy.
Elsewhere, Potter purists will surely complain about a few deliberate and sometimes baffling changes made from the novel, specifically one involving the noncanonical burning of a certain homestead, though this scene, like so many others, delivers such a remarkable visual aesthetic that no one should get hung up on trivial details. The point being, it’s clear that Yates has done something quite admirable here, as he and Kloves choose not to simply regurgitate source material in the interest of fandom, nor to introduce changes in the name of convenience, but rather to craft a film with careful consideration of what comes next, with particular attention paid to the film medium outside of mere narrative. Though even in that regard, the Half-Blood Prince is an improvement: Harry and Hermione’s relationship is strengthened and ennunciated; Dumbledore’s many secrets begin to come to light, indulging the kind of lore than add depth to the fantasy; Snape’s intentions become even murkier; and the increasing proximity of Voldemort to Harry, both physically and mentally,is tantalizing explored. It’s clear that the moves made in this adaptation are the result of a forward-thinking filmmaker — after an eclectic early franchise stretch defined by shifting aesthetics and styles, it’s smart and arguably necessary to retain Yates’ consistent and evolving vision to the end — intent on bringing the Potter saga to a satisfying, mature, and complex end that honors its source material without being enslaved by it. And with two films on the way, Yates has ample time to convert the diehards still griping about his alterations — if the progress evinced in Half-Blood Prince is any indication, come next year, even they should be convinced.