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.