‘Oh, to be young and feel love’s keen sting,” is Professor Albus Dumbledore’s wry comment on the wrenching pains of puppy love that his Hogwarts students are suffering in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In a surprising and largely successful twist for the film adaptations of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, David Yates — in his second turn as director — devotes most of The Half-Blood Prince to the nascent love lives of Rowling’s young witches and wizards. Without mocking his characters — who do a good enough job making sport of one another — Yates manages to highlight the hilarity of young love, making this by far the funniest film in the series. The Half-Blood Prince also delivers a few impressive battle scenes, of course — and these frightening moments are all the more jolting because they are so rare.
Yates’s streamlined version of what is the most bloated of Rowling’s novels begins where the last film ended, with Harry bloodied from doing battle with the Dark Lord and his minions — particularly the creepy and malicious Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). His mentor, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), then enlists his assistance in prying information about Lord Voldemort from new Hogwarts professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent, in a wonderfully endearing and wacky performance). Whereas in the other Potter films a reasonably clear quest is introduced at the outset, The Half-Blood Prince reveals only in the last segment what information it is that Harry is trying to obtain from Slughorn. In another break from recent entries in the series, Voldemort — who appears only in flashbacks as the young Tom Riddle — and Dumbledore are for the most part off the stage.
Instead, other characters come to the fore. In addition to Slughorn, prominent roles go to Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), Bellatrix, and Harry’s classmate and nemesis Draco Malfoy. In some scenes, the talented Rickman recalls his droll performance in Die Hard, as for example when addressing Harry with a scornful, “How great it must be to be the Chosen One.”
Thoughout the Potter series, Snape has shared freely his genuine disdain for Harry, and here he suggests more clearly than ever before his subservience to the Dark Lord — but attentive viewers will come away with more questions than answers about Snape’s true loyalty. Snape has been pressed into service by Mrs. Malfoy to watch over her son, whom Voldemort has charged with a grave and secret task. In a puzzling scene in which Snape comes upon a seriously injured Draco — who has just lost a battle he initiated with Harry — Snape heals Draco, but inexplicably issues not a word of criticism for Harry.
For his part, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) — whosesun-starved complexion is suggestive of someone consigned to cold and dark places — manages to seem by turns odious and sympathetic. In the scene that immediately precedes his fight with Harry, Malfoy is alone, weeping. By the end of the film, it is clear that Draco’s inability to comply readily with the wishes of Voldemort has less to do with cowardice than with his residual conscience. Given these nuances in characterization, the battle here between good and evil is not as black-and-white as in the previous Potter films. The only unremittingly malevolent character in this episode is Bellatrix Lestrange — aside from Lord Voldemort himself, of course.
And here, at last, we learn of the origin of Voldemort’s turn toward evil — as being rooted in his desire for power that can overcome even death. In the scene in which Slughorn finally recalls his interactions with young Tom Riddle, the future Lord Voldemort asks Slughorn about horcruxes – objects that are enchanted with slices of the spellcaster’s soul, preserving his life force for recovery and revival. Such power comes at tremendous cost, however: A horcrux can only be created by the performance of intrinsically evil acts, such as murder. There is no moral way to overcome mortality, it turns out. Saving oneself involves destroying others — and in the process, destroying oneself. As Slughorn observes in horror, “Murder rips the soul apart; it is a violation of nature.”
The revelation about Voldemort’s horcruxes sends Dumbledore and Harry on a quest to find and destroy the fragments of the Dark Lord’s soul — the only way to destroy him once and for all. The scene also features one of the most alarming sequences in the entire series (and in this scene, as throughout the film, the work of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnelis is superb). Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is rated PG, but in fact it is a borderline PG-13 movie — not because of any sexually suggestive activity or language from the teenage characters and their raging hormones — but because the film’s few frightening scenes are genuinely terrifying.
The final battle — hardly a battle at all — is one of the most upsetting in the series, as a beloved character dies, leaving Harry all too alone before his eventual battle against the Dark Lord. This film, like the book of the same name, is but a prelude to the final encounter — its ending is not an ending. And though its action concludes with the death of a friend, a powerful sign offers hope for the future. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince weaves humor, teen romance, great quests — and subtle reflections on good, evil, sacrifice, and hope — making this film the best summer entertainment yet in the Potter series.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.