Warner Bros. // 2009 // 153 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski // December 16th, 2009
"Once again, I must ask too much of you, Harry." -- Albus Dumbledore
** Note: Images are taken from the standard DVD and do not reflect Blu-ray picture quality. **
This sixth installment of the powerful Harry Potter series propels the story toward its conclusion, slated to arrive in a two-film set in 2010 and 2011. As usual, the filmmakers must make choices in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince about what to discard and what to keep from J.K. Rowling's lengthy book, but I believe they make the right choices this time around. The result is a marvelously effective adaptation -- by turns funny, thrilling, or tragic, but always exceptionally warm-hearted.
Spoiler Alert! I'll be discussing plot points through the end of this sixth movie (but won't reveal anything from Book Seven).
With Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters operating in the open and publicly terrorizing both wizard and Muggle populations, danger looms larger than ever for Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe, December Boys) as he returns to Hogwarts for his sixth year. Luckily, there are plenty of goings-on to distract him: an old potions textbook with scribbled revisions by the mysterious "half-blood prince" makes Harry a sudden achiever in the subject, Ron (Rupert Grint, Driving Lessons) becomes keeper for their house Quidditch team, and Hermione (Emma Watson, The Tale of Despereaux) fumes when Ron starts snogging with another girl. Harry's hormones are active, as well, with Ron's sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) occupying his thoughts often.
But some Hogwarts students have little time for crushes and sports, and Harry notices that his nemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton, Anna and the King) seems to be working fervently and in secret on some dark mission. He's determined to uncover Draco's plot, but Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, Gosford Park) wants his focus elsewhere. He's been guiding Harry through important moments from Voldemort's past and needs Harry to obtain a crucial missing piece: a memory of an encounter between the young Voldemort and Professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent, Moulin Rouge!), who has been lured back to Hogwarts by Harry's celebrity. When the contents of this encounter are revealed, Harry and Dumbledore will embark on a perilous mission to the Dark Lord's secret hiding place...
As many battle-scarred filmmakers can attest, the combination of a long, complicated book and a devoted, demanding fan base is rough on the folks who bring that story to the big screen. An adaptation of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince simplified enough to attract a casual audience and yet faithful enough to please fans must have seemed as elusive as Quidditch's Golden Snitch to director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves. And thus, they must have felt as triumphant as the lucky Seeker who catches that slippery Snitch when the film thrived at the box office and in reviews.
I heard a fair amount of griping from fellow Potter fans about the differences between the book and the movie, but for me, Kloves -- returning to the franchise after an unfortunate absence from the fifth film's crew -- handled Half-Blood Prince's story brilliantly. Key to his success is his willingness to set priorities about where to spend each precious minute of screentime when, in this series, there's never enough to go around. Instead of cramming in as much as possible and having it all feel rushed (the chief crime of the fifth installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), Kloves seems to pick three elements from the book that he really wants to focus on: budding romance among the Hogwarts students, new teacher Horace Slughorn, and the bond between Harry and Dumbledore.
Hormones -- supplemented by a love potion here and there -- keep the teens at Hogwarts very busy this year as all three of our core group endures painful romantic entanglements. As Dumbledore says, "Oh, to be young and to feel love's keen sting." Ron's pain comes mostly in the superficial form of chapped lips and mounting irritation with his saccharine girlfriend Lavender Brown. Unlike Ron, Hermione is smart enough not to embrace attention from just anyone, so she mostly steers clear of Quidditch jock Cormac McLaggen, saving her affection for the prat who's too dim to recognize it: Ron, of course! Kloves smartly weaves the threads of these love stories through the Quidditch scenes, as well as others, thus giving a rather silly plot about Ron's sport-related performance anxiety some extra emotional heft. Meanwhile, Harry's fondness for Ginny grows into romantic feelings, which in this film are hindered only by the non-obstacle of her being Ron's sister, and the two share a sweet kiss in the Room of Requirement.
These amorous goings-on are successfully played for both comedy and pathos in Half-Blood Prince, and they also serve a larger thematic purpose in the Harry Potter series as a whole. The connections forged among these young people -- either in love or in newly solidified friendship -- are key to their ability to defeat the forces of darkness. As Harry himself realized at the end of Order of the Phoenix, it makes a big difference in the struggle between good and evil that he and his companions have "something worth fighting for."
A touching side effect of all the snogging and the tears about who somebody else has been snogging is that Harry and Hermione share some really nice moments in this film, as when they console each other in the stairwell or when Hermione helps Harry keep any arrogance at bay (Hermione: "She's only interested in you because she thinks you're the chosen one." Harry: "But I am the chosen one." [swift whack to the head from Hermione's roll of parchment]). It's no coincidence that in the final scene Harry and Hermione stand together strategizing their next moves against Voldemort while Ron sits quietly somewhere in the background: these two have always been the more compelling characters of their trio. Though both Harry and Hermione have claimed fervently over the course of the series that they're just friends, I'm not the only fan who finds them to be a much more exciting potential couple than Harry/Ginny or Hermione/Ron.
The second major focus of this adaptation is Horace Slughorn, a professor returning to Hogwarts who inordinately values life's little pleasures. Often indulging in a box of candied pineapple, a dinner party, or tickets to a big Quidditch match, Slughorn organizes his life around obtaining and retaining these comforts, and lavishing attention on talented young wizard students who may one day be able repay his kindness (with free Quidditch tickets, for example). He is the story's strongest embodiment of how in dark times, people must "make the choice between what is right and what is easy," as Dumbledore says. Harry and Slughorn thrust and parry politely throughout the film as Harry tries to access Slughorn's information about young Voldemort. In this subtle duel, Broadbent perfectly conveys the sense of an older gentleman -- perhaps a bit vain, a bit greedy -- who has no interest in evil, but can't quite make the personal sacrifice necessary to do good. When he finally does, the sequence is wonderfully moving, gracefully performed by Broadbent and Radcliffe. Both actors begin their encounter with lightness and humor: Harry tipsy from the effects of his Felix Felicis potion, and Slughorn swiping plant stalks from the greenhouse and then eulogizing a giant spider he'd never met. But after a few post-funeral drinks, Broadbent ably ushers in a more somber mood as he performs a beautiful monologue (added by Kloves) about a bit of magic Harry's mother showed him once. Radcliffe uses Broadbent's manifest emotion to fuel Harry's final pitch, finally convincing Slughorn to choose what is right over what is easy. Sourced from one of the best individual chapters Rowling wrote for the book series, this sequence also becomes one of the best in the film series.
Third among Kloves' emphasized story elements is the bond between our young hero and his aging mentor, set up in the first, very evocative, shots of the film as we see Dumbledore gripping Harry's shoulder and gently shepherding him away from the press after Sirius' death. As expected, the powerful wizard gets plenty of great dramatic scenes before his own death: his chilling encounter with a very young Tom Riddle, his labored efforts to drink the sinister liquid in Voldemort's cave, and his final attempt to fight evil by saving Draco Malfoy's soul. Sensing the boy's hesitation to kill him, Dumbledore tries to set him right, as Gambon says with pitch-perfect intonation and expression, "Draco, years ago I knew a boy who made all the wrong choices. Please, let me help you." But before this showdown, Dumbledore shares a few very poignant scenes with Harry, especially as they admire the view from the Astronomy Tower. Wistfully marking the passage of time in their friendship, Dumbledore comments that Harry needs a shave, and adds: "You know at times, I forget how much you've grown. At times I still see the small boy from the cupboard. Forgive my mawkishness, Harry -- I'm an old man." "You still look the same to me, sir," Harry replies. (This line is actually a bit amusing, too, since Gambon looks considerably younger here than the late Richard Harris did as Dumbledore at the point in the series these characters are recalling).
Seeing Gambon flex his dramatic muscles is a satisfying but expected pleasure in Half-Blood Prince. An unexpected bonus is just how much he's able to let his amusing eccentricity shine earlier in the film. The whole sequence in which he and Harry visit Slughorn is a joy -- especially when Dumbledore returns from the loo and asks if he can keep the knitting magazine he found there. Gambon nails both the comedy and the tragedy, and viewers can only hope his character will have a significant posthumous presence in the final two films.
Allowing each of these three storylines the breathing room to really develop does, of course, require sacrifices elsewhere and the part from the book most eviscerated in Kloves' screenplay is the exploration of Lord Voldemort's past. Dumbledore shows Harry two brief memories of Voldemort when he was the young boy Tom Riddle, but the book includes several more that are important to both Voldemort's character and psychology, and to the crucial Horcrux plot. I found this price to be worth the reward -- and I half suspect some of this material will get pushed into the next film, since book seven will be luxuriously spread out over two full-length installments. Some fans of the book were also shocked to see a climactic fight scene left off the end of the film, but those who have read book seven and know what's ahead in the films should understand why it got the ax.
Sacrificing memories of Voldemort for the three plots mentioned above works for me, but the one script choice I can't give my seal of approval is the addition of an extra fight at the Burrow in the middle of the film. When so much gets left out from the book, why add a long sequence that wasn't even in it? Someone must have thought that a little extra action halfway through would keep viewers' interest, but it felt gratuitous -- as did the fiery destruction of the Weasley home in the scene's culmination.
While fans of the series will have plenty to mourn after the final film airs in 2011, all moviegoers will suffer a more general loss when Harry Potter no longer provides an excuse for an annual gathering of British acting talent on this grand scale. The cast in Half-Blood Prince is tremendously good, with terrific new performers like Broadbent, and with old hands like Gambon, Radcliffe, and Alan Rickman continuing to grow in their roles. Rickman, as usual, is among the most fun to watch, pushing Snape's slithering vocal affectations as far as they can go, without ever crossing the line into camp. He keeps viewers guessing about whose side Snape is really on throughout the film, and then truly looks the part of the villain in the final confrontation Harry provokes.
Among the younger set, Tom Felton as Draco is especially impressive, transforming this boy's belief that he, too, is a "chosen one" into something truly sad, not just sinister. Even the performers who don't have as large a role in this chapter of the story get at least one great line or great scene, and almost without exception they maximize the little they're given: Hagrid at Aragog's funeral, McGonagall chiding Ron for looking too happy, or Luna offering to fix Harry's broken nose ("Personally, I think you look a bit more devil-may-care this way, but it's up to you"). Come to think of it, the delightful Evanna Lynch has more than one great scene as Luna: she also gets to wear her crazy lion's head for Quidditch cheering and to dress like a Christmas tree for a party!
A well-adapted script and terrific performances take Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince far, but these elements would falter without the deft directing and innovative audiovisual elements that Yates and the rest of his crew provide. The big spectacle scenes look great, from the dynamic Quidditch match, to the shopping frenzy at Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes, to the intensely creepy experience of the cave. I especially loved the spectacle of all the Hogwarts students raising their lighted wands to mourn Dumbledore -- which replaced the book's funeral scene effectively and efficiently. Though Yates handles these demanding scenes expertly, what I appreciate even more are the little touches he and the crew add that make the film feel so artistic, expansive, and immersive. The expectation for artistry and a unique vision arrives early in the film, when Dumbledore comes to fetch Harry for a mission in a London underground station. As Harry peers through a coffeeshop window, sensing that something is about to happen, Dumbledore appears as a train passes, standing motionless and center frame in front of a billboard that bears the word "Magic." It's a striking shot, with a sharp contrast between Dumbledore's mystical attire and the dingy normality of the train station, with the word "magic" behind him as the perfect punctuation.
Great little details like that one spread through the frame often in Half-Blood Prince: the talking Umbridge toy seen briefly in the Weasleys' shop, the Death Eaters whom Yates keeps in our mind through stray newspaper photos and "wanted" posters, or the arm of Slughorn's that retains its plush armrest shape for a moment after he morphs from his chair form. And what a beautiful touch the shots of objects on Dumbledore's desk provided after his death. When Harry comes in and takes a long look at the unopened mail and half-drunk cup of tea, we feel the pain of his fresh loss. The crew's attention to detail carries through to the audio realm, too, as when the exaggerated thumps of a Quaffle being thrown around convey Ron's perception of the seconds ticking away before his big Quidditch match, bringing the humiliation and doom he foresees ever nearer.
Luckily, Warner Bros. has completed an impeccable Blu-ray transfer of these audiovisual elements for this release. Having popped in the standard DVD, too, I fully agree with Michael Stailey's assessment in his Verdict review that its picture quality is surprisingly awful. This Blu-ray's image is stunning, suffering from none of the standard edition's problems with an overly dark appearance and distracting compression artifacts. Here, everything looks wonderfully crisp and clear. Color saturation is excellent, with the film's mostly muted tones rendered nicely, and injected with occasional blazes of brilliant color -- as in the trio of fire scenes. The Blu-ray is much brighter than the DVD, but with no sacrifice in black levels. I didn't detect compression artifacts, and just a touch of visible grain in some scenes evokes a nice celluloid look. Audio is equally impressive, with all channels working to provide ambient sound and directional effects often for a deeply immersive aural experience. Dialogue is well balanced with sound effects and music, too.
The special features offered here are well produced, but have some noticeable gaps in coverage. Generally, they seem tailored for some of the younger fans who might be more interested in the teen actors and less for viewers who want in-depth analysis of the creative choices involved in making Half-Blood Prince. So if you're looking for interviews about how Kloves adapted the book, you'll be disappointed; but if you're dying to know whether the guys who play Crabbe and Goyle prefer chocolate or strawberry ice cream, these are extras were made for you. We don't get a director's commentary track or any substantive interviews with directors, producers, or screenwriters. Perhaps Warner Bros. is holding some material back for the upcoming "Ultimate Edition" Blu-ray release? Here's what we do get (in addition to the standard DVD version of the film and the digital copy), housed on a second Blu-ray disc:
* Additional Footage (7 minutes)
Eight scenes offer extra pondering about what Draco Malfoy is up to, a bit more dissection of Ron and Hermione's feelings for each other, and more of Harry and Dumbledore entering and leaving Voldemort's cave (with a great Dumbledore book line included in the latter). The one bit I really wish they'd left in is the atmospheric extended version of the ominous sequence when Draco brings the Death Eaters to Hogwarts.
* "Close-Up with the Cast of Harry Potter" (28 minutes)
Brisk and fun, this feature allows the younger actors of the film to give us a guided tour behind the scenes, through different departments. Editing, practical effects, owl training, stunts, costume design, art, assistant directing, and make-up each get a segment led by a different cast member (including Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson). Highlights include an explanation from Lynch of the jewelry she herself designed and produced for Luna, and James Phelps (Fred Weasley) getting teased as he interns as an assistant director -- which seems to mostly involve getting coffee for his costars.
* "One-Minute Drills" (7 minutes)
Seven different actors (eight, counting both Weasley twins) attempt to explain their characters' storylines through the sixth film in under 60 seconds. Predictably, Radcliffe has the hardest task.
* "What's on Your Mind?" (7 minutes)
Tom Felton gamely hosts this little Q&A in which many of the younger actors are asked for snap responses to questions like "What career would you want if you weren't an actor?" or "What book would you want on a desert island?" On the latter question, several actors pick a volume of Harry Potter, but one of the Phelps brothers has a better answer: How to Build a Raft.
* J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life (50 minutes)
This TV documentary makes for a generous addition to the disc's special features, and it should intrigue fans of the books to peek in at Rowling's writing process and hear more of her life story. The "secret life," exposé tone is a little grating, though.
* Footage from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2 minutes)
A nice tease for the next film gives us a few talking heads and footage from the set, followed by a short trailer.
* "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" (12 minutes)
My cynical side is marveling at how smoothly this attraction will capitalize on the series' commercial potential (the books, after all, spend a lot of time rhapsodizing about the great toys and candy available for purchase in Hogsmeade Village). That said, the my less cynical side is already planning my trip there!
All of the above extras are also on the two-disc edition of the DVD, but the Blu-ray edition also offers "Maximum Movie Mode," which lets you play the film with little picture-in-picture interviews with the cast, audio snippets from the crew, or production stills popping in here and there. Prompts to press "enter" at certain points pull you from the film to additional short featurettes exploring some aspect of the scene you'd been watching -- like Ron and Lavender's kiss -- and then plop you back into the film afterwards. Less focused than a commentary track and with lots of gaps, this mode of viewing is nevertheless an engaging supplement to a third or fourth viewing of the film.
Some detractors of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince lament that it feels like a prelude to the big finale rather than a film that can independently impress. I heartily disagree. This sixth installment of the franchise is more stylistically sophisticated and thematically complex than these critics acknowledge. In fact, it's hard to imagine how Deathly Hallows will top the emotional heights Half-Blood Prince reaches...but if any cast and crew can do it, this one can.
On the O.W.L. scale, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince "exceeds expectation" and is very nearly "outstanding."
Review content copyright © 2009 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 153 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Maximum Movie Mode
* Standard DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
* Official Film Site
* Official Book Site