Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince is quite the rebound from the previous film, The Order of The Phoenix. Gone is the convoluted plotline and political back story, and in its place is a tale about adolescence framed by even more impending doom. Things have grown serious throughout these films, leading to The Deathly Hallows, and the films have become increasingly darker. This time around, less focus is put on the “darkness” of the proceedings, creating an air of solemn dread. And The Half-Blood Prince is a slower picture. This may sound like a knock on the film, but that is quite the opposite. We have shed some of the chaos and manic energy of the last few films and the result is a picture more focused and emotionally engaging. I felt more about all of the people involved this time.
Once again, we meet up with Harry in the world of the Muggles. The trial of Lucius Malfoy has ended and he has been sent to Azkaban. Naturally, this puts Harry even more in the crosshairs of Draco (Tom Felton), who is flirting with the influences of the Dark Lord, Voldemort. Harry is soon whisked away from a tube station by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), who teams up with Harry to try and find a weakness in the past of Voldemort. Harry and Dumbledore travel to the home of the reclusive former professor, Horace Sloghorn (British character actor Jim Broadbent), and persuade him to return to teaching potions. Sloghorn once taught Tom Riddle, who would grow to become Voldemort, so the return of Sloghorn to Hogwarts has obviously further implications than simply teaching potion class.
While Harry and Dumbledore work together to strengthen their knowledge of Voldemort, the central focus of Ron, Hermione, and even Harry himself is, well, romance. These three have reached adolescence and find themselves baffled and befuddled by the opposite sex. There is much courtship and flirting and some humorous moments as the trio tries to get their personal life in order, so to speak. This, above all else, is why I feel Hogwarts is less of a central character in The Half-Blood Prince. There is no emphasis on the shifting staircases or hidden rooms or flying owls or whimsical dinners; we don’t have time for such nonsense now. Those things were important in the earlier films to establish the proper tone. Now, those things are subtracted to do the very same thing. More attention is given to the characters and the proceedings carry much more weight as a result. Even the Quidditch match is a bit darker and less flashy.
Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) has been flirting with a larger and larger role throughout these films, and I had a feeling he would become a vital cog in the narrative. Thankfully, I was not disappointed. Snape is the most intriguing peripheral character, and as he takes more of the center stage his role becomes pivotal in the ultimate fall of Hogwarts as a merry school of Wizardry. Rickman is compelling in this role, delivering his lines with droll wit and cold pauses. We hang on every word.
Darkness has now completely fallen on the school and its inhabitants. I was concerned this film would be another series of set ups to the final story/films. But eventually it was not such a story, as there was that all-important crucial death. The death of a major character, I feel, is key in a series like this. It raises the stakes to the appropriate level and drives the momentum forward into the final film(s). Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince is the most understated of the series, and the best so far. There are some moments that are not simply dark, but deep emotionally. We are given psychological conflict over an abundance of physical conflict at just the right time, where we are all fully invested in these characters enough that the final act of this series means everything it could possibly mean.