Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince's opening scenes are marked by the chaos and confusion permeating both the Muggle and wizard communities as they experience acts of terrorism via Voldemort's army of Death Eaters, free from the shackles of Azkaban and eager to wage war for their master. The fancy of years gone by has been replaced by a general feeling of unease as prominent members of the wizarding world go missing, their businesses left destroyed or abandoned. Rumors suggest Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is getting too old and possibly too senile to offer protection strong enough to defend against The Dark Lord, and parents question whether Hogwarts is still the safest place for their children. Magic has irrevocably made the leap from pretty lights and the odd hex to a weapon of mass destruction in the wrong hands. War, hormones, and dark magic equal a better-than-average year for the students of Hogwarts, and the best Potter movie since Prisoner of Azkaban.
Burgeoning love is very much the new character in this film; the chaste smooches and not-so-subtle hints of mutual attraction have given way to unbridled make-out sessions and scorned teens in all their glory. Even Dumbledore wants the scoop. Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) make a modicum of progress in their tumultuous relationship, while Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) pines for Ginny (Bonnie Wright) and occasionally bathes in his own popularity, possessing a cockiness far removed from the wide-eyed innocence of earlier films. The series is first and foremost a fantasy, not a romance, though hints of sex within the hallowed halls of Hogwarts give the teens a quality of realness, and add to the sense of easiness the young actors have developed among themselves after spending much of their own adolescence on the sets of Potter films. The elder actors steal the show, as per usual -- Snape (Alan Rickman) is meaner, scarier, funnier, and more unfathomable than he's ever been, while prickly McGonagall's (Dame Maggie Smith) strict nature is infused with the subtle but deep-rooted loyalty for which she is known and loved in the books. It's Jim Broadbent's turn as newly appointed potions teacher Horace Slughorn, however, that gives the Hogwarts teachers the distinction they deserve. Broadbent, as Slughorn, embodies the combination of ego and charm inherent in those members of Slytherin house who haven't fallen in step with Voldemort's anti-Muggle beliefs.
Michael Gambon's portrayal of Dumbledore, unfortunately, remains too aloof and stern to capture the loving, albeit conflicted relationship between headmaster and student. His private lessons with Harry seem disjointed and abrupt; oddly, he seems more compassionate toward Tom Riddle (aka Young Voldemort) in a series of flashbacks meant to enable Harry to understand the nature of his enemy. Inexplicably, all of Harry's interactions with Dumbledore are sudden and somewhat confusing. Everyone, whether or not they've read the Potter series, will leave this film knowing who likes whom, but far fewer will understand how Harry and Dumbledore wound up in a mountainside cave hunting for pieces of Voldemort's soul; and fewer still, unless they've really been paying attention, will grasp the profundity of Fawkes the Phoenix's departure from Hogwarts. When it came to Harry's destiny and the fate of humankind versus high school love triangles, well, it sure seems like humankind got shortchanged.
The Potter film franchise has never struck a proper balance between pleasing both casual moviegoers and ardent book lovers, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is no exception. The good news is that it comes closer than any of its predecessors, hitting the mark or coming close to it on almost all fronts. With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows being split into two films, the final installment stands an excellent chance of getting it right.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on AllMovie
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)