Director: David Yates
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Tom Felton, Jim Broadbent
Here we are, one step closer to the end of this now gargantuan franchise, started all the way back in 2001 with Philosopher's Stone. Now in his sixth, penultimate, outing, Harry (Radcliffe) is older, wiser, and hormonal. So are Ron (Grint) and Hermione (Watson). But as their pituitary glands go into overdrive, foul things are afoot, for blonde bad boy Draco Malfoy (Felton) is tackling an evil task for Voldemort. Not that Dumbledore (Gambon) seems to notice. He's too busy with his bottles of memories.
Yes, running with the novel's retrospective theme, the Half-Blood Prince is a movie concerned with times gone by. With Harry learning from a battered text-book (once the property of a former student, the titular Half-Blood Prince) and an ex-teacher returning to Hogwarts, Horace Slughorn (Broadbent), the key aim is to work out what happened to Voldemort when he was younger. For this they draft in ickle Raiph Fiennes, the spooky Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, and Frank Dillane.
Aged 11 and 16, young Voldy is extremely creepy, his pale face and glinting eyes an eery echo of nightmares to come. But what of big daddy Voldy? He's nowhere to be seen. The evils come from his Death Eaters instead, from the disturbing Bellatrix LeStrange (a gleeful Helena Bonham-Carter) to the grizzly Fenrir Greyback. The rest of the cast are decent, too, with the Brit thesps doing their Dickensian best to dabble in the darkness now engulfing the series. Snape (Rickman) steals his scenes with that sibilllant sneer; it's a shame he doesn't get more of them. As the ageing Albus, Gambon is wizened and withered, a world-weary warlock with a commanding screen presence. It helps that he's borrowed Gandalf's wig and beard - the similarity really is striking.
The kids are alright as well, with Grint clearly enjoying himself - getting more comic punchlines and lots of snogging, he relishes the chance to take centre stage. There's even a montage of him playing Quidditch in slow-motion. Felton, meanwhile, impresses as Draco, convincingly conflicted as the would-be Death Eater. Radcliffe, too, finally puts on a good show; he can now do angry, bereaved, jealous and smitten without any need for horsey props. For ten whole minutes (after Harry takes a liquid luck potion), he actually acts - and, shock horror, is genuinely funny. When he gets it on with Ginny, you even care a tiny bit; this is a real step-up for the maturing actors.
David Yate's direction is still stylish and confident; his assured ability catches the eye and crafts tension with no fear of the dense subject matter. Teaming with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, their flashy visuals are dizzying stuff, coupled with high-class special effects. Nicholas Hooper's haunting soundtrack is again well-matched, breathing more life into Hedwig's Theme than an inflatable John Williams, underscoring everything with a note of portentous dread. Nice.
The weakness comes in the screenplay. Steve Kloves returns to the writer’s chair after Michael Goldenberg's Order of the Phoenix, but his script is nowhere near as elegant. Chapters are chopped, characters culled, and flashbacks forgotten; streamlining is essential, but sacrificing key plot points does no-one any favours. Also removed, quite inexplicably, are some of the novel’s notable action sequences; there’s a neat addition in an attack on the Weasley’s home, and a gorgeous opening in which London gets destroyed, but otherwise all we get is a few jinxes in a bathroom and a poisoned necklace. Hardly cinematic stuff. Instead, Kloves clings to the everyday classroom antics of the earlier films. A little less Quidditch, a little more action please, Steve.
The cave scene (Rowling’s best piece of writing in her whole career) is wonderfully done, the dead surrounding Dumbledore with a spooky determination. But the final fight in Hogwart's corridors completely disappears, making the confrontation between Harry and his enemy a bit of an anti-climax; the reveal of the Half-Blood Prince is completely underplayed. Still, the darkness closes in to great effect. And, as emotions run wild in the grounds of Hogwarts, the teen angst is dealt with convincingly and, more importantly, in a light-hearted manner.
A balanced effort, then, but one missing its key player. Lord Voldemort’s mysterious backstory – the whole crux of the narrative – is left somewhat unfinished. Piecing his past together, Kloves leaves a puzzle riddled with plotholes, ones he'll have to fill in with Deathly Hallows. But that was the plan all along. This is just the overture to the gleaming final flourish, the cold fish before the meaty main meal. And if this is anything to go by, that two-course steak is going to be very well done.
Dark, brooding and brimming with hormones, Half-Blood Prince is really just a warm-up for the epic conclusion. And it does that brilliantly well. Harry Potter swoons, he shoots, he scores.