Review: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

The cinema is packed out with buzzing fans on the opening night of the sixth instalment of the ‘Harry Potter’ films, but I’ll be honest, my expectations are low. I appreciate that Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell and David Yates all shared a daunting task; their mission was to create cinematic masterpieces and box office record breakers based on books which millions of people worldwide have read and hold dear.

There is no denying that the pressure of having to satisfy legions of die-hard fans must have been tough but with a huge budget to play with and some of the Britain’s best loved actors behind you I feel that there really is no excuse for making this series badly. What fans want is integrity, attention to detail, the essence of the book captured on film: all things which the first ‘Harry Potter’ films lacked. Did Columbus go through ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ with a fine tooth comb, Peter Jackson style? I doubt it. The first four films had plenty of big name actors, great CGI, detailed costumes, an amazing set but it lacked the magic of Rowling’s novels. I had decided not to risk further disappointment by boycotting ‘The Half Blood Prince’ but having seen several promising trailers my curiosity got the better of me. So here I am, waiting to be convinced.

This film follows Harry through his sixth year at Hogwarts as he begins to learn more about Lord Voldemort’s past, going right back to the days when he was a student at the school. In the novel many of Dumbledore’s memories about the young Voldemort (Tom Riddle) are described and whilst Yates cut many of these from the final script, the memories that are represented are done exceedingly well. Hero Fiennes-Tiffin’s appearance as the young Tom Riddle leaves a lasting impression in a short but effective flashback. He sends chills down your spin with his deadpan declaration, ‘I can make bad things happen to people who are mean to me.’ Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) gets the opportunity to showcase his acting ability in this instalment as he is pushed to the limits of his humanity by the dark forces at work in the wizarding world.

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From ‘mild peril’ to ‘moderate threat’ the films are finally becoming darker. Whilst I can understand the difficulty of turning, what can be at times, quite chilling books into films which are suitable for children, up until now much of the dark matter of the novels has been played down or lost completely. On hearing that Guillermo del Toro had turned down the chance to direct ‘The Half Blood Prince’ I assumed that any opportunity to explore the more disturbing aspects of ‘Harry Potter’ were gone. However, in this film there were some genuinely scary moments: Katie Bell’s cursed body hanging in the air as she silently screams, the Dark Mark looming in the sky, the attack by the Death Eaters on The Burrow. Helena Bonham Carter is perfectly cast as the manic Bellatrix Lestrange; the tense scene at The Burrows, which was invented for the screenplay, allows us to revel in all her deranged glory.

Tension aside, the rest of the film succeeds in being surprisingly funny, without employing slapstick. As the teenage Harry, Ron and Hermione all experience the pangs of love comic situations arise. Radcliffe succeeds in carrying off a comic scene when he is acting under the influence of a ‘liquid luck’ potion with ease whilst Grint is blessed with many of the film’s comic one-liners. The three young actors appear to have improved dramatically since the filming of ‘The Order of the Phoenix’, although the dialogue in this film is much more realistic than the stilted lines of the early films. When I think of poor eleven year old Radcliffe being asked to delivered such contrived dialogue as ‘I.. I can’t be a wizard, I’m just Harry!’ in the first film my heart goes out to him. A workman can’t achieve anything without good tools and Steve Kloves’ script really allows us to see what Radcliffe, Grint and Watson can do. Whether the three young actors will be able to cope with the emotionally draining final instalment of Rowling’s series or not remains to be seen. But with David Yates at the reins again for the two ‘Deathly Hallows’ films, I’m now confident that it will be worth waiting for.

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My verdict: whilst it wasn’t a perfect film (a lot of episodes from the novel were completely cut which I can only imagine will create difficulties in filming for ‘The Deathly Hallows’) it captured the feeling of the sixth book. Die hard fans hoping for an exact replica of the novel will doubtless be disappointed but I felt that this was compensated for in other areas: it was well shot, well cast and well considered. My final thought as I leave the cinema? What a pity it took so long for someone to make a ‘Harry Potter’ that leaves the audience spell bound.

4 stars out of 5