The latest installment in the Harry Potter franchise is the most visually lush of the series, capturing the luminous beauty of magical school Hogworts before evil destroys it. But is this evil called Voldemort or puberty?
Fans have been eagerly anticipating Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince partly because it signals the blooming of two romances that many people have been waiting for. Harry's pals, brainiac Hermione and goofy Ron Weasley, finally start to figure out that they like each other as more than friends. And Harry himself finally realizes that he needs a sensible, sporty girl like Ron's little sister Ginny. These developments are true to the spirit of the book, and would make a welcome respite from the usual ghostbustering if they were at all believable.
Unfortunately, none of these young actors have any chemistry together except as a Scooby Gang. And so even though I think this is probably the best Harry Potter film so far, there are stretches of the film that feel mechanical. Harry, Ron, and Hermione ham it up to show how besotted they are with various people, and the result feels like a romantic comedy without the romance. We never understand why Hermione is interested in Ron, other than the fact of proximity. Indeed, Ron's relationship with the lusty Lavender seems far more believable.
But these romantic shenanigans are woven into what makes this film so beautiful. Director David Yates notoriously worked very hard to make the film look dreamy, and in fact tinkering with the visuals delayed the film's release by almost a year. Apparently, an early version of the film contained such hyper-saturated colors that the studio sent it back to Yates and asked him to lighten it up. The movie still retains a unique look, in which landscapes and buildings seem to glow. The dark characters who take center stage pop against this radiant background, which works because their stories are the most interesting in this film.
That true heart of this movie is the relationship between Harry and his nemesis Draco, who has been ushered into the evil ranks of the Deatheaters. With his family in disgrace, Draco is no longer the taunting, mean boy of previous films. His face pale and lined, he is pursued by an evil he cannot admit frightens him. We know he has been tasked with a horrifying errand for the Dark Lord, and that the slippery Professor Snape has sworn to protect him. As Draco puts it, he has been chosen – and his words deliberately echo the phrase that people use to describe Harry Potter, "the chosen one."
The Deatheaters have grown so bold that they come streaking into muggle London like smokey, black bombs, destroying a bridge filled with pedestrians. It's an intense scene, giving us the feeling right away that this isn't fairy tale spookery anymore. We've crossed over into the world of adult terror, where everyone - even non-wizards - has something to fear. And as we see the always-mysterious Snape (played brilliantly by Alan Rickman) being drawn deeper into the Deatheater's plans, he becomes an even more intriguing character. If anything frustrates in this movie more than the lackluster romances, it's that we see less of Snape than we want to.
Part of the film's dreaminess also comes from its mcguffin, the bottled memories Harry watches in the memory-recreating penseive. Good Professor Dumbledore tells Harry that he must watch memories of Voldemort's early days as Tom Riddle, and retrieve a missing memory, in order to defeat the evil wizard. So Harry must face the dark past, while Draco must find the strength to carry out his dark task. Along the way, we see that Draco has been cornered into evil. And that Harry has the capacity to do evil himself. The movie's title comes from a potions book Harry becomes obsessed with, a book filled with dark spells that once belonged to someone called the half-blood prince.
And all of this happens between quidditch matches and awkward dates. The dialog is even peppered with quips that work surprisingly well in this generally serious franchise.
Yates directs the movie like a suspense story with no payoff - unless the payoff you're looking for is a closeup of Harry kissing Ginny Weasley with his slightly repulsive extendo-lips. Other than the previous Harry potter film, Yates is best known for directing episodes of suspense television shows, and you'll wish that he brought some of the taut pacing from those shows into this movie. Even when Harry is going undercover to retrieve that lost memory, or braving a lake full of skeletons, the tone falls strangely flat.
The ending may be shocking, but it doesn't feel climactic. Partly this is because the next two movies – book seven will be broken up into two films – will give us the true climax of the story begun here. But partly, I think that this is just bad storytelling. We have a series of set pieces, not a smooth, dramatic arc. Many of those set pieces are quite glorious, however. And we're willing to forgive a little bit of clumsiness in the service of a story which manages to feel entirely magical.