Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is spellbinding, even though it is more grounded in reality and less fanciful than previous installments.
David Yates has grown more assured in his direction since his last film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. In this sixth film in the series, the cinematography is stunning, and the story unfolds in a stately and unhurried fashion.
Captivating from the first frame, this Potter feels more epic than previous films, which had a less mature, more madcap quality. Yates finds an artful way to meld the teenage romance and inherent humor with a sense of impending doom.
Half-Blood Prince conveys some of the rich texture and depth of J.K. Rowling’s book, but it takes a lackluster turn at the end. In a key scene, Harry is rendered more ineffectual than his literary counterpart as a result of plot revisions.
Presumably Yates decided on a less-is-more finale by underplaying the book’s climactic tragedy, perhaps because readers already had been rocked by the event. Though this makes sense, it leaves the die-hard fan with a sense of anticlimax.
Yates clearly has a vision for the films, and he has sharpened it with this incarnation. The somber mood suits the story’s dark tone. We see less random magic and more mature reflection, which is rare for a fantasy. The entire film is shot through with a sense of gravity and portent.
The wizards are now 16, in their penultimate year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Though he is seen only through others’ memories, Lord Voldemort’s ominous presence is distinctly felt. He has assembled a cadre of malevolent henchmen, who menace the wizarding and Muggle (non-magical) worlds.
Hogwarts is no longer the refuge it had been for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his pals, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). Meanwhile, the surly Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is skulking off in the school’s cavernous corridors, struggling with a terrible mission.
Harry works with Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) to thwart Voldemort and the encroachment of his evil dominion. Dumbledore assigns his protégé to cozy up to Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) and access a key memory to aid in his fight.
Though Half-Blood Prince is one of the series’s best, with spectacular effects, nuanced performances and witty dialogue, its dialed-down adaptation of Rowling’s conclusion ends what might have been a masterful work with a measure of disappointment.