[Re-posted from The House Next Door.]
In my previous essay, I noted that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was the first work to recognize the limitations that come with functioning as part of a larger mosaic. It provided fewer restatements of common themes and less background for its developments. The irony is that while Phoenix more heavily depended on a keen familiarity with its predecessors, the considerably richer and challenging visual language elevated it to become a distinctive vision unto itself. Its successor, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), furthers this progression in a different fashion. The novel’s central plot device involving Harry’s discovery of an old book belonging to “The Half-Blood Prince,” from which he learns mysterious new spells, is barely a footnote here. However, that the film’s title is rather inconsequential turns out to be a major asset, as director David Yates shirks narrative unity and instead concentrates intensely on the feelings of pain, guilt, and anxiety that underlie the proceedings.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore’s (Michael Gambon) relationship provides the emotional core of the film. Together they seek to understand Voldemort’s power by investigating Dumbledore’s memories of the Dark Lord from when he was a student at Hogwarts. These memories are held in small vials, which, when poured into the Pensieve, enable one to live them out. The visualization of these memories is composed of several conventions of the movie dream sequence, including distorted sound and washed-out colors. Although the memories themselves are not exceptional, the film on the whole has an inimitable dreamlike characteristic. Many scenes and images unfold with little attention toward logical progression. Yates’ assured and sensory aesthetic sets the film apart from previous installments, even his own predecessor. The director revels in the dimensionality of cinematic space, weaving through tighter and more vertical alleyways (such as in Diagon Alley) and around staircases and hallways in Hogwarts. Angles are pronounced, movements are slow, and distances have depth and focus. Bruno Delbonnel’s darker and earthier photography suggests a more human focus and a moody atmosphere, and composer Nicholas Hooper’s score is restrained and (perhaps in a nod to John Williams’ music for the third film) often accentuates a single instrument with a light sound that fills the image.
The opening sequence is a primer for the ethereal ambience of the film and introduces an effective recurring motif. It shows Harry swooned by cameras but numb to their flashing bulbs and screaming operators. He has just lost his godfather and Voldemort’s return now weighs on him considerably. But everything drowns out when Dumbledore—standing next to Harry and perhaps understanding the incredible burden Harry must now bear—extends his arm around Harry to shield him from the scrutiny. The scene is without dialogue and gradually whittles its focus down to Dumbledore’s paternal grasp of Harry’s arm. Throughout the film Yates uses hands to emphasize the transference of emotion, pain, and burdens from person to person. Often there is a tender quality to these instances, such as when the flighty Professor Slughorn, played with ingenious charm by Jim Broadbent, finally submits to Harry’s pressure to give over the memory of a critical encounter of his with a young Tom Riddle (aka Voldemort). For much of the film, Harry has pursued the memory knowing that it contained essential information about Voldemort, but Slughorn has resisted because, as he says, it would ruin him. After quietly recounting his bittersweet memory of Harry’s mother, Slughorn shakily holds out a vial into which to “drop” the memory. Harry’s hand then enters the frame opposite Slughorn’s and clasps his hand, holding the vial steady as the memory is poured in; a simple composition, but potent.
Quiet transactions such the one I’ve just described are a trademark of Half-Blood Prince, which is singularly focused on the difficulties of accepting the pains of both the past and the future. While Slughorn is dogged by past mistakes, Draco Malfoy (Harry’s rival, played by Tom Felton) is burdened by actions he has yet to commit. Malfoy broods for much of the film, isolated from many of his fellow sixth-year students who are more often concerned with love charms. Yates’ observances of Malfoy’s damaged emotional state contrasted with the sexual discoveries of the other students are especially poignant, as suggested by a single composition from outside of the castle glimpsing the various night encounters of the students. We see a party in the Gryffindor house before winding up a stairwell as Ron and his new liaison share an embrace, and then finally we are taken past the school observation tower where, across the way, Malfoy is ominously postured.
Half-Blood Prince is significantly more preoccupied with pain and anxiety than previous outings, but its expressive palate encompasses other feelings as well. These include a passionate encounter Harry enjoys with Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), in which, again, hands play a crucial role, and a most surprising scene late in the film that teeters on a kind of ecstasy, after Harry drinks the luck potion and enters a joyously intoxicated state. The film also ventures into dark territory when Harry casts a spell on Malfoy during a duel they share in one of the bathrooms. In what can only be described as the most ethereal scene in all of the Potter lore, Harry approaches a twitching and surely dying Malfoy, as blood rushes from his many wounds. When Snape arrives on the scene he stands over Malfoy, enshrouded in haze, and, in a protracted shot, stares at a speechless Harry to haunting effect.
The wide range of emotional states reflected in the various transactions between characters may appear aimless in the specific context of this film. However, Yates is intuitive to know that Half-Blood Prince, situated at the end of a long series, must accomplish things both on its own as well as in relation to established characters and themes. With this film he explores the deep undercurrents of many of the relationships that have developed over the years. Wisely, Yates keeps the focus off of the relationship of Ron, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Harry, aware that the next installment would grant him that opportunity. This film belongs to Dumbledore. While Michael Gambon gave the character a presence previously, here he allows us to peer into his soul. Dumbledore is more softly spoken and contemplative this time around. We are unsure throughout of how strongly the character is resigned to his eventual fate. Nevertheless, his desire to protect and guide Harry is subtly offset by what appears to be his acknowledgement that Harry will need to go on without him.
The closing scenes galvanize the many emotional threads that have been building over the course of the movie, beginning with a chilling scene set within a cave. While the zombie-like creatures that eventually threaten Harry are memorable indeed, Gambon’s portrayal of an increasingly feeble old man is piercing. A few moments later, when Harry and Dumbledore return to Hogwarts, time seems to stop altogether as Harry witnesses the death of a beloved mentor and father figure. The film’s depiction of this crucial moment is worth noting for its departures from the novel, much to the chagrin of many viewers. In Rowling’s version, Harry is immobilized and physically unable to stop the events, but in the movie he watches from below after Dumbledore instructs him to stay there. It’s a wonder that the filmmakers opted for a different path here since there appears to be no convincing reason for it, other than the heightened sense of discomfort of seeing the events occur from Harry’s perspective below Dumbledore. It is a representation of the scene’s generally off-kilter sense of space. Unlike in the book, the observation tower here is a closed and confusing area, adding another tantalizing element to an already tense scene.
After a failed pursuit of Dumbledore’s killer, Harry returns to the courtyard for his final encounter with the headmaster. The hands motif is again restated here, bookending the opening sequence with Harry’s hands clutching Dumbledore’s lifeless body. It is one of the few moments of the film in which emotion is on full display as opposed to simmering beneath the surface.
On the whole, I better understand now why Half-Blood Prince is such a divisive film in the series. Its sacrifice of narrative cohesion in favor of pushing aesthetic and expressive boundaries has rubbed some fans the wrong way. And given that fans constitute a majority of viewers, the film’s reputation has suffered. On a personal note, this represents the only chapter of the series that came across to me as a very different movie upon revisiting it. After my first viewing, I was ambivalent. I did not anticipate the slower rhythms, especially after such a fast-moving and exhilarating fifth film. This may speak to the nature of a serial saga such as the Harry Potter movies, in which expectations likely play a greater role in how we make something of a given film. With my recent viewing, I was more taken with the movie's bared expressiveness and ambition. It somewhat made me mourn the fact that this series is trapped within a serial mold, both commercially and narratively. Within this mold, however, Yates stretches the artful and affective scope to a new threshold with Half-Blood Prince.