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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Rated PG. 153 Minutes.

Review by: G Barraza

It’s amazing what a little confidence can do. And when confidence is bountiful, the results can truly be magical. Such are the lessons in the most recent year at Hogwarts school. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, our intrepid wizard students face dangers few can foresee, and are also confounded by the most unpredictable (and hormonal) of spells, love. The latest installment reminds the audience that few things can be more fearful than the very experience of adolescence. We’ve witnessed these kids grow from plucky youth to moody teens, and the payoffs arrive in spades in this film. The atmosphere, direction, and uniformly solid performances make for the most satisfying chapter yet. In fact, the confidence both in front of and behind the camera make Half-Blood Prince the most faithful adaptation yet of J.K. Rowling’s magnum opus of wizardry and maturity.

The single most striking component of the film is the confidence of director David Yates. Forced in many ways to pull a rabbit out of a hat in adapting Order of the Phoenix by making cinematic mountains out of a literary molehill, Yates clearly feels much more comfortable this time around. In many ways, he goes with the flow of a much stronger story, and juggles more deftly than last time. The film feels less frantic and more natural, particularly for the actors involved. The secret, Yates has found, is that adapting a literary work isn’t about following the text verbatim or punching up a film with tedious action scenes. The genius is in following the spirit of the work. Earlier this year, Watchmen captivated many with its slavish devotion to the book’s imagery that inspired it, but also bored many due to the same relentless devotion to the dialogue and plot structure. The difference in Yates’s direction between the fifth and sixth film is like night and day. With Phoenix, he was trying to please too many. Here, there is a confidence to just tell the story and trust the actors.

After two previous films that have frankly been a bit clunky in execution, Half-Blood Prince has once again given the characters a chance to breathe. Since this film doesn’t blatantly try to be an action movie, the adults are given ripe opportunity to play into the drama of the events surrounding them all. After being mostly whimsical in the past few films, Michael Gambon as Dumbledore is fleshed out and captivating to watch. A ragged sadness is worn like a yoke, and he dutifully yet regrettably sows the seeds for young Harry Potter that may well lead to the young wizard’s triumph and destruction.

Supporting characters and fellow teachers are also given moments to spread their robes and flourish. Jim Broadbent plays a new potions teacher with an arrogant tone and a tortured past, stealing nearly every scene he appears in. Maggie Smith’s somber eyes and gaunt features allow her to express the gravity of a world under siege; underlining the responsibility of our young heroes with the rapid loss of innocence they endure. And finally, Alan Rickman as Severus Snape comes to the forefront. Questions about his ultimate role in Potter’s tale are dealt with, and yet raise more pressing inquiries that can only be revealed in the final chapter. Snape’s presence in this film is itself an intoxicating elixir, yet even at the film’s conclusion we crave more.

The young actors also are given the director’s trust and the screenplay’s opportunity to shine. Both Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry Potter and Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley have long since grown comfortable in their roles, but a revelation here is the newfound depth in Emma Watson’s portrayal of Hermione Granger. This gifted young witch is absolutely befuddled by her growing feelings, and one can feel her pain, frustration and infatuation in the performance. Perhaps even more striking is Tom Felton as the incorrigible Draco Malfoy. Previously viewed as merely “that nasty blonde kid,” here we see hints of the vulnerability beneath the surface. Felton’s Malfoy in this film is eye opening. In fact, with the exception of Jesse Cave, as the lovestruck Lavender Brown (who’s acting tapdances on the landmine of campiness), all of the young actors are near perfect. Throughout the film, one can practically smell the pheromones in the air, and not even these magical teens are immune to the mixed bags of emotion involved.

Visually, the film’s color palette is striking. The entire film is lavish and painted in broad strokes of despair; even the most joyful of sequences (including the glorious return of quidditch) are saturated with a tint of melancholy. Hints of grays and greens dab the images we see, reflecting the decay of a once vibrant world of magic. In many ways, it’s the antithesis of Chamber of Secrets. They are structurally similar, but thematically Half-Blood Prince is miles more mature because of the moral ambiguities involved.

As a narrative, the film hits all the right notes. It moves briskly for a 153 minute long movie, and is very accessible despite its darker tone. The film itself casts spells on the viewer, making one appreciate all the laughs, scares, and especially the discomfort of the teenage years. It’s fun for young audiences and rewarding for older ones. In fact, like the novel itself, the film’s greatest gift is to older audiences. It makes us recognize the frustration of youthful indiscretion and miss our own at the same time.

Expertly mixed together like a fine potion, Half-Blood Prince is a royal pedigree of entertainment. The climax builds tension beautifully, and the conclusion is the most satisfying yet. Our heroes (or what's left of them) are left with a sense of excitement, remorse, and finally a true end to the innocence of youth. In spite of this sadness, the audience is eager to complete the journey with young Potter. Ahead lies the road to resolution paved in regret; an uncertain path with a certain goal. We find Harry has the resolve to complete a personal sense of duty. After contending with the awkwardness and insecurities of adolescence he has accepted his life and found direction during these trying times in school. Confidence is key. That’s a elusive lesson even us older muggles can struggle to find long after we leave our own school grounds.