Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince faces the same problem that every movie in the franchise has. It’s a dilemma faced by any literary adaptation, really, that what works in books doesn’t necessarily work on film. Striking a balance between making a workable film while still staying true to the material is a difficult challenge to say the least. Having said all that, this movie does the very best that it can within those limitations, weaving a perfectly serviceable narrative out of a very dense story, and elevating it with a dazzling amount of craft. While sticklers for narrative structure will still find fault with how this movie is plotted, the utter precision and skill on display should win everyone over in the end.
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is now on his sixth year at Hogwarts, and he has fully accepted his role as the Chosen One, the only person who can defeat the Dark Lord Voldemort. Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) tries to prepare Harry for the oncoming storm, showing him memories of Voldemort as a child. But the memories aren’t perfect, and Dumbledore tasks Harry to get close to new potions professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) in order to learn the truth about a particular event that may hold the key to defeating Voldemort.
Condensing a 600-page novel into a single film is no easy feat. Screenwriter Steve Kloves does an admirable job of it, paring down the tale to what appears to be the barest of essentials, juggling the various elements of the plot with relative ease. The movie is long, but it moves quickly, practically every scene offering a new bit of information to bring the story to a new point. This approach works pretty well, but it does come with a caveat; it makes the plotting feel a tad artificial. It does make for a much tighter film, but it undermines the emotions of the story quite a bit. Still, what Kloves has done is pretty phenomenal, all things considering, and what flaws there are in the script are more than made for by the filmmaking. David Yates has improved leaps and bounds since the last film, his action swifter, his timing better overall. But a lot of the credit ought to go to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. Delbonnel, best known for his work on French darling Amelie, has brought whole new dimensions to Yates’ direction. He’s able to capture little details in the fringes of his frames, often saving the film from the tedium of needless exposition. On a purely visual level, it’s hard to imagine how to film could be any better.
The cast has largely remained the same. I still have qualms about Daniel Radcliffe’s ability to convey emotion, but at least he’s looking a lot more relaxed. It looks like he’s having fun with it. Rupert Grint is pretty good, but he’s yet to really be given a chance to stretch his acting muscles. The same goes with Emma Watson, who mostly plays it cool. Of course, it might just be that the kids can’t shine while being surrounded by so many great British actors. Jim Broadbent is always a delight, and he’s a welcome addition to an already bursting cast. Michael Gambon’s playfulness as Albus Dumbledore is always appreciated. And of course, there’s Alan Rickman, whose Severus Snape is one of the most beautifully conceived characters in all of cinema’s history.
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince still has its flaws, but overall, it’s a really good picture. I’m still not sold on the overall story, which still comes off as a bit derivative and artificial, but it’s easy to ignore those caveats when such a high level of craft is on display. When you put it all together, it’s a fun, occasionally thrilling ride that sets a pretty good standard for the remaining two films. Here’s hoping.