WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: The re-emergence of Voldemort, formerly known as Tom Riddle, hangs over Harry as he and his friends start their sixth year at Hogwarts. Professor Dumbledore asks Harry to retrieve information about Riddle from old teacher Horace Slughorn in order to fight back against the Dark Lord, but the young wizard has other things on his mind, not least keeping an eye on his nemesis Draco Malfoy.
Harry Potter’s (Daniel Radcliffe) world is becoming an increasingly troubled place; for not only has he lost his godfather Sirius Black in Voldemort’s attack on the Ministry of Magic, but the Dark Lord’s ‘Death Eaters’ are now causing devastation in the lives of ordinary humans (or ‘muggles’). It’s little surprise, therefore, that Professore Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) seeks Harry out before term has even started to persuade former teacher Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) to come back to the school. Slughorn has a soft spot for exceptional young wizards, including in the past a certain Tom Riddle, and Dumbledore tasks Harry with retrieving a specific memory of Slughorn’s, when he and Riddle discussed something secret and sinister.
Harry happens upon a potions book belonging to someone calling himself the ‘Half-Blood prince’, which aids him in his quest but brings him to the attention of shifty teacher Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), who has promised to look after Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), himself on a secret mission that sees him transferring objects in and out of the school via a magic cupboard. And if Harry didn’t already have his hands full probing Slughorn and keeping an eye on Malfoy, he still has his Quidditch games, the perennial tangle between his friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and a new complication in the increasingly attractive shape of Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright). However, all his lighter thoughts must be put to one side when Voldemort’s scheme is revealed and Dumbledore enlists Harry’s help to destroy the ‘horcruxes’ that harbour pieces of the Dark Lord’s soul, effectively making him immortal.
When Warner Bros signed up to adapt the Harry Potter series they could scarcely have imagined the dark and sinister turns the story would take. Half-Blood Prince is a world away from the grinning wonder and spectacle of Chris Columbus’ Philosopher’s Stone, and the darkness is not limited to the tone of the story; the characters here spend most of their time in the shadows, secluded under stairs or otherwise hidden, which gives a weighty and oppressive atmosphere to the film (and highlights the excellence of some of the lighter scenes, for example the Hogwart’s Express steaming through burnished countryside) but makes a lot of the action quite hard to see. Still, Michael Gambon gives his best performance as Dumbledore and he is well supported as usual by Rickman, Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall and Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid. Jim Broadbent’s trademark effusiveness and underlying sadness fits perfectly amongst the regular cast and his Slughorn is just one more in a lifetime of strong performances.
The same can’t necessarily be said for the younger actors, however. Between the first film and the fifth there were definite signs of progress as the child actors turned into young adults; here, however, it appears as though most of them have hit their limits – or even, dare I say it, become weary of their roles. Rupert Grint responds naturally to events and Tom Felton carries off his increased responsibilities with distinction, but Emma Watson seems every inch the well-spoken university student and Bonnie Wright speaks her lines rather than delivering them. She creates very little chemistry with Radcliffe, which is a shame as the tension around this burgeoning relationship is key to the book and to Harry’s character as a whole. Radcliffe’s Potter, meanwhile, is curiously static: a lot of discussion has centred on Harry’s inaction at a crucial point (in the book he cannot act, in the film he does not act), but it fits entirely with his immobility throughout the film. As a consequence, although the plot builds up a certain amount of intrigue, it does not thrill or get the heart racing in a physical sense.
This is largely due, of course, to the difficulties of adapting a dense, 600-plus-page novel for the screen. As was the case in Goblet of Fire, screenwriter Steve Kloves has jettisoned whole swathes of the book to create a film less than six hours long: gone are the elves, the new Minister for Magic and nearly all the background about Voldemort’s ancestors, and important figures such as Tonks, Lupin and Hagrid are reduced to mere bit-parts. More importantly, the identity and purpose of the half-blood prince is reduced from a central driver of Harry, Hermione and Ron’s actions to an inconsequential and unexplained reveal at the film’s climax; and when much is removed to concentrate on Ron’s courtship with Lavender (Jessie Cave) and its effect on Hermione, it’s odd that the film takes out most of Harry’s interactions with Ginny.
Furthermore, whilst it’s true that the two sequences added to make the story more cinema-friendly are impressively rendered – the destruction of the Millennium footbridge and of the Weasleys’ home, The Burrows – they feel like set-pieces for their own sake, especially as the second event is barely mentioned after it happens. Crucially, however, the end of the film is left (apart from the quibbling over Harry’s inertia) pretty much as it was, and both the scenes in the cave as Harry and Dumbledore strive to find a horcrux and the final showdown are nicely put together.
While Half-Blood Prince is undeniably a more visually impressive and imaginative piece of film-making than, for example, either of Chris Columbus’s films, it is a very selective adaptation and one I’d not exactly describe as enjoyable. Yates and Kloves have just about done justice to J. K. Rowling’s ideas, but they will need to invest the final two films with a lot more feeling – and instil that passion in their younger stars – if they are to make the two Deathly Hallows films the gripping spectacles they have every right to be.