From the moment The Half-Blood Prince opens, there’s something different about it, something much darker, and much more sinister than the other films.
The film comes at a critical point in the series. It marks the end of the adventures around Hogwarts, and the sharp plunge into adulthood. In a series defined by its increasing maturity, this is an essential chapter, both as a book and as a film. Director David Yates remarked that for him, it was a real transition between the cast as children, and the same cast as adults. It is in this way that the filmmakers inject the same level of typical complexity into the film, as J. K. Rowling does with her narrative. All this, is immediately apparent in the look of the film, through the incredibly lash and rich images. The Hogwarts grounds gain an air of beauty and menace simultaneously, which has never been seen before. A self-proclaimed technique of mine is to look at movie scenes without context, so that we can see imagery without perspective. Or in some instances, it’s just funny. In The Half-Blood Prince, I am consistently floored by the lush and dreamy cinematography.
Yates went on record to say that the sixth film in the series took serious inspiration from Rembrant van Rijn, a Dutch painter. Some of the most memorable scenes show clear influence from the style of the Dutch master. I’ll go one step ahead and even say that in every scene, you can pause the film and frame the image as its own beautiful evocative painting, so Yates and his team stated that they wished to create a lyrical and painted style for the film. But why?
The style captures the handsome stillness of the film; the epic feeling of the calm before the storm. The skies are constantly cloudy without rain, the agonizing buildup to Dumbledore’s death. It’s the beautiful contrast. The Half-Blood Prince is awash with deep shadows amidst soft lightning. The effect is instant. The atmosphere is ripe, yet never safe. An ominous sense of foreboding darkness creeps in almost every scene, a sense that just outside the warmth of the castle, where our characters cling to light, something stirs. Now add in the absence of light, it becomes an even more powerful tool to show who is right and who is wrong. Another bold statement, who is conflicted?
However, films are not paintings, and they can move. The recurring motif of cameras passing through windows returns in this film, alluding to the fact that Hogwarts is no longer impenetrable. There is an additional layer of symmetry to compound the sense of stillness before that same storm, which we all know, is that infamous Avada Kedavra spell. Like it or not, the characters, Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, are destined down the respective paths, and they have no choice. Whether one is blocking the other from moving forwards, or if they are off centre, where do their genuine allegiances lie?
The soundtrack is some of the best in the series. From the opening moments, the music tells audience everything they need to know about the film. Hedwig’s heroic theme is almost swallowed by sinister violins which dance around it. And even when the theme is allowed to complete itself, one note is lifted up a semitone to corrupt the melody. Hedwig’s theme of hope is damaged and surrounded by danger. Before you have time to linger on that message however, the swirling arrangement of strings heralds the loss of Dumbledore. And as Hedwig’s broken theme of hope fades into that theme, the music is screaming that Harry’s hope and courage are intertwined with that great father figure.
While we can get moody over the sad, dark musical pieces, there are more callbacks from previous films in the series. For example, we revisit the Quidditch theme from Prisoner of Azkaban, taking what is messy and unsure and bringing the melody front and centre, burlier and confident. Despite this, if there is a piece that geniusly captures the feeling of dread, jumping into the deep end, it has to be Dumbledore’s pep talk to commence the school year. In a pivotal scene, Dumbledore issues a warning to the students that threats are no longer external. A dark twinkling sensation bounces off the walls, with looming distant drums, highlighting a creeping sense of terror. A third step forward, does something spectacularly fascinating. It wraps itself around another theme. It is a counter-melody for Hedwig’s theme of hope, a warning wrapped around that very integral series’ theme, the idea that the magic and hope of childhood is being unraveled.
It’s these clever callbacks that allow The Half-Blood Prince to wonderfully bridge itself between the magic of past and the darkness that is to come. Everything in this film works together to create this bridge. The tone between darkness and hope. In the end, it is easy to breakdown the individual techniques that make The Half-Blood Prince so amazing. What really matters though, is when it all comes together, a greater storyline pushes the existing story further. As the story deepens, it further transcends the fantasy. At its core, this is a story about children, faced with impossible choices. You think of Draco losing his mind at the Herculean task of killing Dumbledore. You think of Harry forcing that dark liquid bile down Dumbledore’s throat in the cave. Crashed by a relentless wave of teenage hormones and drama, the story seemlessly transitions from the borders of innocence, to the plunge of adulthood.
It’s when Harry Potter grows up.