Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, directed by David Yates (2009).
This article was first published on Culturewatch, and is republished here by permission. © Tony Watkins
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has grown up a great deal in the last few years. Since he first stepped into the Great Hall at Hogwarts School, his wide-eyed wonder and innocence has been ripped away. He has faced the harsh realities of a world in which evil is finding new strength, and is focusing that strength on destroying him. The difficulties Harry experienced living with the Dursley family are nothing compared to the dangers, anguish and loss he has endured since. His friends have stuck by him throughout, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emily Watson) remaining fiercely loyal despite their disagreements. The three of them have learned more about the world than they cared to, and have developed skills which have been tested in the most extreme circumstances.
Harry has also grown tremendously as a result of being mentored by the greatest wizard of the age, Professor Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). It’s a wonderful relationship. As well as giving him wise advice, the old man’s trust in Harry gives him confidence to act courageously and to lead others. It empowers Harry to fulfil his potential. The protectiveness which the Order of the Phoenix members feel for the young wizard means that Harry is in the fortunate position of having a group of good adult friends, who are totally committed to his safety and well-being.
As Harry has changed over the years, so have the films. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a far cry from the stiff acting, shoddy effects and sloppy direction of the first two films, which strived too hard to be faithful to the books. Later directors (Alfonson Cuaran, Mike Newell and David Yates) have had much more freedom to make the films work well on their own terms, partly helped by the simple impossibility of putting the entirety of much larger books into two and a half hours. While the standard of the films has improved, each instalment is darker than the one before as J.K. Rowling’s epic story builds towards its astonishing climax.
Dumbledore needs a crucial memory in his efforts to defeat Lord Voldemort. He has a version which has been tampered with, but he needs the real one from former potions master Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). Since Slughorn is preoccupied with comfort, security and the status that results from having taught famous wizards, he is easily lured back to Hogwarts by the promise of a bigger office and, especially, teaching Harry Potter. With Slughorn teaching potions, Snape (Alan Rickman) takes over teaching Defence against the Dark Arts, to Harry’s distress. The advantage for Harry and Ron is that the exam requirements for taking Slughorn’s classes are lower than they would have been if Snape was still teaching potions. This means they have arrived without textbooks, and when Slughorn suggests they take old copies from his cupboard, Harry discovers the tatty copy he receives is full of notes written by its former owner, the Half-Blood Prince. In their first potion-creating task, he discovers that the notes in his book are corrections to the recipes, and they work much better than the printed ones.
Storm clouds continually loom over this film, both literally and figuratively. The wizarding world, which at our first encounter seemed so exciting and vivid, is dark, grey and forbidding. So many scenes are gloomily monochrome that the few bright ones come as welcome relief. Many of these concern the adolescent romantic turmoil of Harry and his friends. Harry is beginning to see Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) in a new way, but she’s going out with Dean Thomas; Hermione, somewhat perplexingly, has developed a bit of a thing for Ron, but he’s entangled with Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave). The combination of raging hormones and a powerful love-potion ending up in the wrong stomach provides much-needed humour to lighten the chilling central plot line. But there is perhaps a little too much of it, resulting in a somewhat uneven, episodic feel, although it will appeal to the teenage target market as much as the rest.
The darkness keeps reminding viewers of the pervading sense of menace facing the wizarding world, caused by the resurgence of the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters. Harry’s life is in particular danger from Voldemort, but everything good is under threat from this unspeakable evil. LIberty is curtailed, security is fragile and trust is ebbing away. Those who stand up for virtue, truth and freedom – in particular, members of the Order of the Phoenix – endure the destruction of their homes, physical attacks and even death.
Nevertheless, Dumbledore and his allies are resolute in their determination to fight evil, whatever the personal cost. They are all grimly aware of the risks, but the peril is such that there can be no triumph without great sacrifice. Their courage in resisting evil, and their willingness to lose their lives for their friends are inspiring. We live in a society in which it has been rare for many years to be in such extreme circumstances. Members of the armed forces face them, of course, but the situation in the wizarding world is much more like that faced by Christian communities in several places around the world where churches and homes have been destroyed and thousands of Christians have been killed in recent years – all without the western news media paying much attention.
As the odds they face seem increasingly insurmountable, Dumbledore in particular is driven on by a deep conviction that good will ultimately triumph over evil. This assurance springs from a belief that, as in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, there is a deeper, good magic that powers of evil cannot comprehend or conquer. Harry was saved from Voldemort’s attempt to kill him by his mother’s self-sacrifice for him, and sacrifice will eventually be what brings about the Dark Lord’s destruction. Meanwhile, Harry and his friends are driven on by the certainty that goodness and truth and freedom are so overwhelmingly important that personal comfort, even life itself are worth expending in order to achieve them.