David Yates really is a hero. He was chosen to direct Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and did an amazing job. he was then asked back to direct Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, becoming only the second director in the franchise to do more than one film. Bringing him back was a great decision as with the fifth film, not only had he crafted the best Harry Potter film up to that point, but with the sixth film he was actually able to improve upon what he did before and make an even better film. Yes, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the best Harry Potter film, and also one of my favourite films in years.
I don’t quite know how to define Yates’ style, but he has a keen knack for conveying tone. This has generally been the biggest problem point in the franchise. Columbus’ films had a consistently appealing tone, but they were too watered down to make a serious impact. Cauron’s film was able to drastically change up the visual tone of the series for the better, but his handling of comedy and drama often fell completely flat. And then there’s the mess that Newell made. But Yates clearly understands how to marry his visuals with sound, editing and story to create films that are genuinely great.
Once again, the visuals in the film are amazing. For Half-Blood Prince, David Yates brought on cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who is most known for his stunning work on Amélie. As though Order of the Phoenix didn’t look awesome enough, Delbonnel takes everything to a whole new level. Half-Blood Prince was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and in my opinion it should have taken home the prize. This isn’t your simple modern blue-toned, monochromatic picture. Delbonnel comes up with unique visuals and colours for nearly every scene. He plays with light and shadow and contrasting colours in such a way as to breathe new life into a series that was already on a cool visual footing.
One scene, for example, has the Burrow being attacked by Death Eaters. The scene plays out in a stark, cold environment. But it isn’t a blue scene, instead yellows and and blacks make up the dominant colour scheme. A portion of the sequence is also shot in what looks to be an irregular shutter speed that lends a cool Saving Private Ryan-style effect. And like few other films since Private Ryan, the effect, combined with wonderful sound design, pulls you into the action in a very raw but stylized way. It’s an example of everything working in perfect sync, and I have to give credit to Yates for making it all sing.
Steve Kloves is back from his vacation, and here he delivers a script that is a bit of a step down from Order of the Phoenix, but it is still a huge improvement over his own previous work. The few areas where I found the the film faltered slightly all came from troubling aspects of the writing. First of all, Snape is not in this movie nearly enough. Snape’s presence is extremely important in order to sell the final reveal that he is the Half-Blood Prince. Instead, that revelation seems almost comically pointless in the face of all the other climactic events. Malfoy also get’s a bit of a short shrift. He gets a lot of scenes, but many of them have no dialogue, and so it’s not often clear what he’s up to. Luckily Tom Felton reveals himself to be quite the thespian. It might not always be clearly what he’s doing, and he may not have much to work with, but his emotions come through on on his face. We see the torment and sadness in his eyes and for the first time its impossible not to sympathize with him.
Another brilliant marriage of visuals, effects, acting and sound design is the small fight Harry and Malfoy have in the washroom. It would be an exciting action scene, except that the visuals and empty quality of the sound convey a sense of deep sadness. Malfoy has just been crying, and the fight has all those qualities. When Harry uses the Sectumsempra spell on Malfoy the scene changes to become hauntingly dark. The blood flows out into the water and the shock is unbelievable. It’s yet another example of a perfectly constructed and artistically effective scene in a series that has not always been known for its artistry.
Yates also makes the decision to up the romantic comedy aspects of the story. I’ve heard many people complain about the amount of this comedy present in the film, but I actually think it’s great. Not only is it all very funny, but it provides exactly the right balance to the much darker scenes and overall tone of the film. Just as Danny Boyle often pushes his films to some very dark places to balance out and enhance the happier catharsis, Yates effectively pushes his film to as much light and fluff as possible to balance out and enhance the darkness and drama.
A great example is the scene where Ron is caught snogging Lavender. The scene begins as a joyous one, and Lavender as played by Jessie Cave is hilarious. But the scene very quickly shifts to a melancholic tone when Hermione sees the two embracing. It becomes a tender and sad scene in which Harry and Hermione have a bit of a heart to heart. And Kloves actually does the scene right by keeping their dialogue from becoming too overt. The subtlety in the scene is what really makes it sing, and once again Delbonnel works his magic with some beautifully underplayed shadow work.
Finally, the cave and tower scenes are perfect. Absolutely perfect. Watching Harry force Dumbledore to drink the cursed water is incredibly difficult to watch, and there is a jump-scare so perfectly handled it would fit right into a great horror film. There is also the shot from under the water of Dumbledore using fire to scare away the Inferi. It’s stunning.
The scene in the Hogwarts tower immediately following the cave sequence is the one that leaves everyone talking. This is amazing drama, and it holds all the subtext present in the book. Malfoy is the reluctant villain, and the look on Alan Rickman’s face just before he kills Dumbledore says everything you would ever need to know about him as a person. It’s a highly dramatic scene, and I also love the denouement of the Bellatrix LeStrange trashing the Great Hall. Dumbledore has been killed and now the room that is practically the heart of Hogwarts is being turned upside down.
Half-Blood Prince is not the most action-packed film in the franchise, but it is at once the funniest, darkest, and most emotional. David Yates has brought a maturity to the series that really makes it shine like never before. I feel no shame in saying that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a legitimately great film. And not a great film compared only to the other Potter films, but a great film, period.