At the start of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) arrives unexpectedly and unannounced at the house of his best pal Ron (Rupert Grint). Weasley’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) spies Harry’s belongings before he appears and yells up the stairs of the house’s central tower to inquire of her mother (Julie Walters) about the boy wizard’s whereabouts. Hearing Harry’s name, one after the other, Ron and Hermione (Emma Watson) pop their heads over the successive banisters to ask, “Did someone say ‘Harry’?”
The moment reminds us how very excited we should be by the arrival, finally, of the latest installment of the Potter powerhouse. And yet the fact that the audience might need such reminding doesn’t bode well for this sixth film in the series. Perhaps it’s because The Order of the Phoenix was released a full two years ago and this movie’s release was stalled for more than six months. Or perhaps it’s because Pottermania has finally run out of steam. Whatever the reasons, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince comes with less of the glitzy spectacle that we’ve come to expect.
One good reason for this shift is the somber tone of J.K. Rowling’s sixth book, which sets the stage for the last face off between Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and Potter, and details Harry’s struggle to accept the fact that he is “The Chosen One,” destined to kill the Dark Lord. That’s a big burden for a 16-year-old and so, mopey teenaged introspection abounds.
This shapes both tone and plot. Though Harry, prodded by Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), is hurtling towards a conclusive confrontation with Voldemort, the movie exhibits very little urgency. The Quidditch matches, for example, which routinely stopped the narrative action of the previous films but were still visualizations of some kind of youthful exuberance, are here fusty and boring, kind of like watching golf on TV.
Even the death of the central character that is the “shocking” finale of The Half-Blood Prince is a snore. There’s no build-up, no tension, no sense of overwhelming tragedy. In Rowling’s book, that murder is followed by a battle royale between the Death Eaters, led by Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), and the students and professors of the school. Strangely, that scuffle, which would have injected some much needed energy into the last movement of the two and a half hour running time, was left out. In the film, Bellatrix, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), and Fenrir Greyback (Dave Legeno) slink off into the night with barely a hero in pursuit.
The moments of levity in The Half-Blood Prince come in the form of typical teenage hormones, angsty desire, and inabilities to express. Now in their sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are repeatedly distracted from their studies and extracurricular valor by sexual desire. And that desire is everywhere: in the background of nearly every scene within the common areas of Hogwarts, happy couples are coupling.
Hermione begins to open up to Ron about her feelings for him, only to have her hopes dashed when Ron takes up with Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), and seems unable to keep his lips off of hers. Hermione tries to make Ron jealous by taking popular boy Cormac McLaggen (Freddie Stroma) to the holiday ball, only to find that not all boys are as respectful as Harry and Ron. At the same time, Harry finds himself increasingly attracted to Ginny. His conflict over his desires and loyalty to his best mate is exacerbated when Ron acts all overly-protective-older-brother when he catches Ginny making out in public with her boyfriend Dean (Alfie Enoch).
These complicated desires are the counterpart to the sacrificial love oft touted by Dumbledore. Throughout the books and films thus far, Dumbledore insists that what sets Harry apart from Voldemort is his capacity for fraternal love, passed on to him by his mother’s ultimate act of love, sacrificing herself so Harry could live. Though he has taken this capacity for granted, Harry now faces a new sort of love, love that he has to choose and act upon willingly. This isn’t so easy.
Love is even harder for Tom Riddle, the boy who grows up to be Voldemort. The Half-Blood Prince spends most of its time filling in the blanks of the history of the Dark Lord, foregrounding through Dumbledore’s collected memories that Tom Riddle (played at age 11 by Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and at age 16 by Frank Dillane) was selfish, narcissistic, and ambitious.
While The Half-Blood Prince doesn’t proclaim Tom Riddle/Lord Voldemort’s homosexuality, it does repeatedly hint at his non-normative “perversity.” One of Dumbledore’s memories is their first meeting, when the professor recruited him to Hogwarts. As a demonstration of his own powerful magic, Dumbledore sets fire to Riddle’s closet, and makes objects inside that the boy has stolen bounce around. Dumbledore intones, “I think there’s something in your wardrobe that’s trying to get out, Tom.” That “something” is supposed to be, explicitly, Tom’s bad behavior and incipient evil. Set against the figure of Albus Dumbledore, however, the dedicated bachelor whom Rowling officially outed after the publication of the final Potter book, this suggestion that the child let his secrets “out of the closet” can certainly be read to signal sexuality and sexual identity. Riddle is further marked visually: he’s a bit prissy and buttoned up, a slightly feminine boy.
Juxtaposed with the all-consuming sexual desires and frustrations of Ron, Hermione, and Harry, Tom Riddle’s yearnings are all about power and revenge. If Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince never identifies his desires or names that sexuality, it clearly suggests that there is something queer about Tom Riddle. The problem is, here, once again, with all the tutelary power of a “children’s book,” publishing industry, and major Hollywood studio behind it, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince directly connects queerness with deviance.