Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince has the notorious reputation of being the most divisive of all Harry Potter films, owing largely to its infidelity towards the source material. Rowling's book was a dark and thematic exploration of Tom Marvolo Riddle's turbulent upbringing and his rise as the most feared sorcerer of his time, whereas the film chooses to spend an unreasonable length of time on the rush of teenage hormones and flat humour. I absolutely hated this film when I first saw it and solemnly swore to never have anything to do with it ever again.
However, years later (after ingesting a couple of hundred films), I had started to have the faintest of ideas on the art of visual and auditory filmmaking, cinematography and screenplay writing. It was this, if nothing else, which drove me to visit The Half-Blood Prince — not as an ungrateful adaptation, but as a piece of standalone filmmaking, with its own cinematic life and language.
This was when I noticed that the cinematography for this film was helmed by none other than Bruno Delbonnel, who until then was the most recognised cinematographer the Potter franchise had ever employed. With classics like Amélie and Inside Llewyn Davis under his belt, Delbonnel's images strike a chord right from the opening shot. The film opens with the shot of a drooping eyelid, lingers on it for a moment, then pulls back to reveal a weary, grief-stricken Harry at the Ministry Of Magic right after his godfather's death, with his Headmaster's arm around his shoulder, leading him away from the wizarding press. This is amalgamated with the opening credits and Nicholas Hooper's heart-wrenching score, instantly making it one of the best opening sequences of all time. To open the film with Harry being led over by Dumbledore not only establishes the film's principal relationship but also sets a sombre tone for what was about to come.
The Hogwarts Castle has been, until The Half-Blood Prince, the embodiment of homely comfort and safety, and a large part of that was because of the way it had been shot. The Hogwarts you see in the previous films is quite colourful, with the bluest of skies, students lounging on the sunkissed castle grounds, smoke rising from Hagrid's hut and the thousand portraits and ghosts with their gleeful and snide remarks. This warmth has been done away with, and with it the innocent childishness that had always been a delightful part of the initial Harry Potter films, and is replaced by a distinctly mature, gritty colour palette. Bruno Delbonnel captures Hogwarts like the dying embers of a once majestic fire: immensely beautiful to look at but reminiscent of the foreboding that grips the rest of the narrative.
With respect to capturing the characters, Delbonnel makes extensive use of silhouette shots, with the camera often pointed not directly at the character but silhouetted against a wide backdrop from a distrance. The silhouette shots are also a nod to the contrasting nature of the characters and are able to capture their duality without any need for dialogue; the most haunting one being Harry confronting Snape on the dark Hogwarts grounds, silhouetted against the crumbling Castle looming behind, the only light in the scene provided by Hagrid's Hut.
There are sequences and moments filmed with such artistic finesse (Harry and Draco's duel, the entire sequence at the cave, Snape's escape) that the film more than makes up for its concessions on the storytelling front. The cinematography, almost unnoticeably, slowly demolishes our image of the castle and its characters, just like the world around them crumbles with Lord Voldemort's reincarnation. However, it does it in a way that dosen't necessarily make the film too dark to look at. Some of the darkest moments in the film are also some of its most beautiful, visually (Dumbledore's fall from the Astronomy Tower, light streaming through the Great Hall illuminating the damage left in the wake of the Death Eaters' escape, the wands lit in tribute together, pointing towards the sky dispelling the darkness).
The raging debate on whether one should focus on visual filmmaking instead of dialogue-heavy storytelling (especially when it comes to adaptations) points to a gamble worth taking. If done right, it can transcend the limitations of traditional storytelling. The Half-Blood Prince takes one of the most beloved books of the Potter Verse and turns it into a painting, something (since my revisit) I've never grown old of.