Although a rousingly entertaining yarn in the tradition of its franchise siblings, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is hardly the strongest member of the bunch. While most critics seemed to have disliked its predecessor’s shift into a darker mood, I welcomed it. It was highly appropriate in the wake of the Dark Lord’s Goblet of Fire return to finally see the shadows falling over Harry Potter. Yes, there were tonal problems in Order of the Phoenix. But those problems appeared in the early sequences featuring the creation of Potter’s ad hoc student army which offered up a jarring Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland “Let’s put on a show” gung-ho-ism that hardly made sense in the middle of that darkening epic.
Whether due to this criticism or not, the filmmakers have jettisoned much of Phoenix’s emotional context. Half-Blood viewers will enjoy its sharp humor and fast pace as well as savor the acting riches provided by the sterling adult supporting cast. Alan Rickman of course is a stand out as he creates a symphony out of frozen stillness, echoing perfectly his character Severus Snape’s tense tightrope suspension between right and wrong. Jim Broadbent mines surprising pathos from his portrayal of new potions master Prof. Slughorn, whose literary version was defined by unsympathetic moral cowardice. Michael Gambon gives his usual solid turn as Dumbledore, and Helena Bonham Carter creates serious chills as the manic Death Eater, Bellatrix. Among the younger cast, Tom Felton shines as an alternately angry and anguished Draco Malfoy, while Emma Watson turns in a funny, first-rate performance as an unexpectedly lovelorn Hermione.
However, those of you who’ve read the book, especially those who’ve read the entire series, may feel as if watching Half-Blood is the cinematic equivalent of reading Cliff Notes. True, a new cinematographer gives the film an invigorating visual immediacy. More than in any other installment, Half-Blood Prince’s vivid yet smudged palette looks as if you could reach out and touch the colors, smearing them across the screen in a stain that perfectly embodies the characters’ murky, messy human struggle to choose between right and wrong. That’s offset, though, by a cramped screen, oddly paced editing, and, worst of all, a screenplay that excises critical narrative threads, adding up to a film that feels hollow at its center. While viewers will eventually learn the identity of the Half-Blood Prince this movie will never explain why they should care. Admittedly, the book is massive and cuts for big-screen adaptation were unavoidable, even welcome. But the filmmakers’ decision not to integrate the novel’s darker themes of racism with the lighter focus on teen romance guts the moral heart of the story, creating a serious thematic continuity break in the film franchise so far. While the movie is definitely worth seeing, read the book if you want to know what’s really at stake as the first of the Deathly Hallows sequels is set to descend later this year.
-- Copyright T.L. Heard 2009