As a book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is one of the more uneven entries in the famed series. The plot is episodic, meandering through Dumbledore’s collected memories of Voldemort’s past and taking what seems like an unnecessarily indirect route to setting up Harry’s final quest: the destruction of Voldemort’s Horcruxes (sundered pieces of his soul). Showdowns and death-scares stoke the tension, then stall. Voldemort never really appears, a lack that is keenly felt. After all those pages, only a few scenes really linger. So what’s a moviemaker to do?
Cut, cut, cut, is the answer, and while it may displease the purists, the result is a movie with a much stronger narrative arc than previous cinematic adaptations or the book, itself. Gone are such subplots as Bill Weasley’s engagement to Fleur, Tonks’s pining for Lupin, Mrs. Weasley’s crippling fear for her children, and many, many classes and Quidditch games. In addition to making up a few mid-movie action scenes to propel the conflict, director David Yates cherry-picks his scenes to follow four major threads: the encroaching danger of Voldemort; the possibility of defeating him through Horcruxes; Draco Malfoy’s crisis of conscience (Voldemort has charged him with the task of murdering Dumbledore); and, frivolous though it may seem in comparison, Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s romantic foibles and attendant teen angst.
Surprisingly, this last works. A plot so dark needs its comic relief, and Yates balances the two moods, shifting from humor to horror (or mixing the two) with a skilled hand. Ron dates giggly, pouty, baby-talking Lavender Brown (played hilariously by a spot-on Jessie Cave); Hermione has her own obnoxiously lascivious suitor (a mischievous, disarmingly lecherous Freddie Stroma); and Harry finally manages to explore his feelings for Ginny Weasley, whose increased prominence in this installment affords actress Bonnie Wright (radiating sweetness and wry self-assurance) the chance to spread her wings. The shifting interpersonal dynamics also allow for some touching moments between Harry and Hermione that highlight the depth of their friendship. And of course, there’s the infamous love potion, intended for Harry but ingested by Ron, that lets actor Rupert Grint show off his comedic chops.
Other actors (Jim Broadbent joins the cast as new professor Horace Slughorn, from whom Harry must extract valuable knowledge about Voldemort’s school days) do a fine job, though many of the series’ heavy-hitters — Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Helena Bonham-Carter — hover at the edges of the narrative, or flit in and out of the story with little to do. Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore seems to have lost some of his sparkle, but he becomes a true mentor for Harry in the film; and Alan Rickman as Snape is, well, Snape, inscrutable as ever. Daniel Radcliffe, Grint, and Emma Watson (as Hermione) continue to grow as actors, and here they turn in their finest performances yet, excelling at both comedic and dramatic turns. The true standout, however, is Tom Felton as Draco, whose character has been a caricature of the sneering schoolboy arch-nemesis — a sort of Voldemort-lite. Suddenly, he’s thrust into the spotlight as a kid who has gotten in over his head and is torn between pride, terror, and guilt in his appointed task. Unlike the book, the movie doesn’t remain firmly fixed within Harry’s perspective, and this allows Yates to spend just a touch more time on Draco’s crisis, a choice that pays off with Fenton’s nuanced, wrenching performance.
What ties this all together is the movie’s use of cinematic devices to fill in the holes. Dark, evocative cinematography and a mournful, creepy soundtrack create a foreboding atmosphere and infuse even the funny scenes with a bit of anxiety. An opening Death Eater attack on Muggle London sets the tone for the whole movie in mere seconds, communicating not just the rising terror but also its thematic proximity to our own real world. The necessary expository information is conveyed more elegantly than ever before — in the headlines of the newspaper a character is reading, the wanted posters in the background of a scene, and other details that rely on the audience’s ability to pick up on hints.
With this latest installment, Yates directs a more tightly plotted, better acted, and cinematically skilled Harry Potter than any of the films that came before it. Let’s hope, with him at the reins of the final two movies (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has been split into two films), that they too will attain just the right balance of fidelity to the book and cinematic innovation.