With Voldemort out in the open and the attacks of his Death Eaters growing more terrible by the day, the second war has truly begun. Nevertheless, Harry must return to Hogwarts, but the insidious influence of the war reaches even into that haven. Harry suspects Draco Malfoy, bully and Harry’s schooltime nemesis, has been recruited into the Death Eater fold. There is, unfortunately, scant evidence of Harry’s theory, and no one believes him. Strange attacks are taking place amid a seemingly normal year, filled with Quidditch, romance, and general school competition. Meanwhile, Dumbledore has begun to give Harry private lessons and tasks, showing him memories of Voldemort – memories that might, just might, show the way forward to defeating the Dark Lord.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the Potter series’ Empire Strikes Back. At least, with regards to the film, although the book remains one of my perennial favorites in the series as well. Dumbledore was always one of my favorite characters in the series, and there’s just so much of him in this installment, and Michael Gambon plays him so delightfully and subtly, that it is difficult not to love it.
The adaptation of Prince also stands, and will stand, as perhaps the strongest adaptation from page to screen out of all eight films. First, the story was short enough that they could actually include material from Order of the Phoenix they were forced to cut, like Ron getting on the Gryffindor Quidditch team, and generally spend more time on character development and little moments of humor that better capture the genuine mirth running through the books. But the script also excels in developing the true conflict of the story, which revolves around the Draco/Snape and Harry/Dumbledore axis.
Draco’s journey in the film is by far one of the most haunting and moving of the series, as he sets about trying to repair the vanishing cabinet that will allow the Death Eaters entrance to Hogwarts. Over the course of the film, Draco is almost always shown by himself, alone and alienated by the stress and gravity of his task. The first time he comes to the vanishing cabinet, he is tossing and catching a green apple, which he places in the cabinet and transports away. When it returns, the apple has a bite out of it, portraying the temptation he has succumbed to. Even better, when he tests the cabinet on two birds. One is pure white, the other pure black. He takes the white bird and puts it in the cabinet – when it returns, it is dead. The black bird, however, remains alive, and this sequence reveals the torturous choice before Malfoy, and that there is both light and dark within him.
Malfoy’s task contrasts profoundly with the frivolity around him. There are several scenes where students are laughing and playing, and Malfoy sits alone in the next corridor in the dark, head bowed, arms hugging his knees. What’s more, when Draco finally goes to let the Death Eaters into Hogwarts through the vanishing cabinet, he strides down a darkened corridor, his back to us, while just around the corner students are making out and drinking. The point is clear, and profound – amid all the foolishness that takes place at school, momentous events are transpiring. While some spend this time engaging in folly, there are people, human souls, who are choosing either the light or the darkness.
One of my favorite moments in this installment is the bathroom battle between Harry and Draco, because we are automatically thrilled and hopeful to see Harry take Draco down a few notches. Our hearts flame with revenge – and then Harry hits Draco with a curse he doesn’t even know, and there lies the bully we have faithfully loathed for five and a half books, spread eagle on the ground, shaking, gallons of blood blooming on the floor. Harry’s view of Draco is radically altered from that moment, and so is ours. The thirst for revenge, for satisfaction, dies in our throats at the horror of it. And our view of Draco is even further challenged when, on the Astronomy tower with Dumbledore, Draco distinctly lowers his wand, unwilling to do the task he was assigned and kill Dumbledore.
The only place where the film stumbles is the final confrontation, and this seems to be a recurring problem pattern in the Potter films. They are strong in the first ninty percent, but stumble with the finish line in sight. Phoenix, Prince, and Hallows, part one and part two, all falter and lose all their energy at the very end. In Prince, it is the confrontation on the Astronomy tower. In the book, this was an exciting, terrifying scene, followed by the deeply traumatic murder of Dumbledore. I never fail to weep when reading the end of the book; yet the film seems to fall completely flat. It is fine right up until Snape kills Dumbledore with the Avada Kadavra. From that point, the film sits limp and does not live up to the full potential of the tragedy it has portrayed. First, there is again a minimalistic use of music as Dumbledore plunges to the courtyard below. Then, Snape and the Death Eaters stride calmly out of the castle, instead of a full on, raging battle like in the book. Finally, there is almost no music, no tension, as Harry chases after Snape in the forest, bent on revenge. Finally, no one seems to show any emotion toward the fact that Dumbledore has died – they all stand around his fallen body, staring at it like they’re confused. There are no howls of agony from Hagrid (strikingly out of character for him), hardly a tear is even shed. They all just lift their wands and envelope the Dark Mark with blinding light. Sure, that’s neat, but it could have been done in such a way that I actually felt more than a fleeting, “that’s sad,” and gone on with my day.
Rating: **** and 1/2 out of *****