‘Harry Potter’ at the movies: ‘Half-Blood Prince’ (2009)

My series looking back at the “Harry Potter” films continues with Year 6, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (2009):

WHY IT’S GREAT

Director David Yates, returning from the very strong “Order of the Phoenix,” and writer Steve Kloves, back after a one-film absence, aren’t slaves to J.K. Rowling’s best novel, but they successfully tap into its comedic (and ultimately tragic) spirt. For example, the line about the “dragon balls” appetizers is not in the book. Much of the humor springs from the love octagon that encompasses Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Dean Thomas, Lavender Brown, Cormac McLaggen and Romilda Vane, featuring deliciously British zingers and flat looks.

Rowling and Kloves make nice use of most of the players on the game board – Hogwarts seems to be fully populated by the book’s characters now — notably giving Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) an active role before his demise. Bruno Delbonnel’s gray-brown cinematography nicely contrasts with the humor and sneakily prepares us for the ending, the music by composer Nicholas Hopper is a smart mix of spirited and subdued, and editor Mark Day wisely lets silence reign in the cave and clock tower sequences.

WHY IT’S NOT SO GREAT

This is a minor quibble in a great film, but, for such a major character, Ginny – Ron’s sister who becomes Harry’s girlfriend here – doesn’t get much of a chance to shine. While Bonnie Wright sometimes gets blamed for a wooden performance, the problem actually dates back to Rowling’s books, where Ginny doesn’t ascend much above her plot-device status in “Chamber of Secrets.” Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), inexplicably smitten with Ron, actually makes more of an impression here than Ginny.

BEST YOUNG CHARACTER AND ACTOR

Tom Riddle (Frank Dillane): Dillane would go on to become the most interesting actor on “Fear the Walking Dead,” so it’s neat to go back and see him nail it as the seemingly soulless young version of Voldemort who is all too interested in the soul-splitting magic of Horcruxes.

BEST ADULT CHARACTER AND ACTOR

Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent): It’s nice to see a fairly decent Slytherin to contrast with the loads of evil ones (especially for me, since Pottermore sorted me into Slytherin). Broadbent makes Slughorn sympathetic even though he perhaps gives a bit too much attention to those students he believes will be the movers and shakers in the world, and even though he inadvertently helped Voldemort get his start.

BEST MOVIE MAGIC

The cave sequence brings to life something that was hard to envision in the book. Harry and Dumbledore standing on an outcropping surrounded by a violent ocean, staring at the cut in a nearby rock face, is one of the saga’s most striking images. Later, when the little island containing the Horcrux is savaged by magic zombies, it’s the best horror sequence in the saga.

BEST COMEDIC BIT

There are so many to choose from, most involving funny lines, but a fun wordless moment occurs in the meeting of prospective Slug Club members, as everyone is enjoying ice cream. Cormac licks his lips at Hermione, to her unease. Then Harry stands up when Ginny enters the party late, prompting a quizzical look from Hermione.

BEST DRAMATIC BIT

Dumbledore’s death on the clock tower at Snape’s wand is the obvious choice, and I have no problem with it. But it’s the love stories (and lust stories) that make me love “Half-Blood Prince” so much. As such, my vote goes to the moment when Hermione sees Ron snogging Lavender at the post-Quidditch party and runs off and cries, followed by Harry – demonstrating his underrated kind-heartedness — comforting and commiserating with her (as Ginny is dating Dean at this point). The arc is punctuated in an oh-so-cute way when Ron mumbles “Hermione” in his hospital bed; I remember there were lots of well-earned giggles in the theater.

WHERE IT RANKS

It easily has the most laughs of any film in the saga, all grounded in the awkwardness and sweaty palms of teenage love. Then it switches gears even more smoothly than the book to the high stakes of the Horcrux hunt at the cave. It culminates with the death of another of Harry’s father figures, nicely contrasting first love with losing a loved one. “Half-Blood Prince” is always an intimate, personal story (see also Draco’s mostly wordless struggle in his mission from the Dark Lord), yet it’s clear the stakes are serious for the whole Wizarding World and even the Muggle world. “Half-Blood Prince” is Rowling’s best book, and this is likewise the series’ best film. But impressively, it’s not because it’s a slavish adaptation.

Book review: “Half-Blood Prince”

Next movie: “Deathly Hallows” (Part 1) (Part 2)

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