Kids’ stuff is a thing of the past in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” Suddenly looking quite grown up, the students at Hogwarts are forced to grapple with heavy issues of mortality, memory and loss in this sixth installment in the series of bigscreen adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s Potter tales. Dazzlingly well made and perhaps deliberately less fanciful than the previous entries, this one is played in a mode closer to palpable life-or-death drama than any of the others and is quite effective as such. Delayed by Warner Bros. from a late 2008 release date so as to spread the wealth after “The Dark Knight” scored so mightily last summer, this “Prince” is poised to follow its predecessors as one of the year’s two or three top-earning films.
After sitting out “The Order of the Phoenix,” screenwriter Steve Kloves happily returned to once again skillfully condense a massive book into manageable dramatic form; among many tough narrative decisions, he has cut back on the violent mayhem surrounding the murderous climax and put off the introduction of Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour until the next episode.
Director David Yates, after a prosaic series debut on the prior film, displays noticeably increased confidence here, injecting more real-world grit into what began eight years ago as purest child’s fantasy; messenger owls and chattering house elves have been superseded by a frank Underground tea-room flirtation, school security checks and raging teenage hormones. The sets have been stripped down to reduce Hogwarts’ fairy-book aspects and emphasize its gray medieval character, and even the obligatory Quidditch match is staged with greater attention to spatial comprehensibility than ever before.
As the overarching story ramps up toward one major character’s death at the end of part six and the final confrontation between Harry and archfiend Voldemort in the climactic “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” which is being shot as a two-part film, this increased seriousness is all to the good. It’s hard to imagine watching “Half-Blood Prince” as a “Potter” virgin without a clue as to what’s come before, but it’s a formidable entry with a heft and cinematic texture compromised only by a certain lack of dramatic modulation.
With the villainess of the last picture, Dolores Umbridge, out of the way but the unseen Lord Voldemort in the ascendant, neither London, subject to a startling opening-scene Death Eater attack, nor Hogwarts itself can be regarded as safe from the Dark Lord’s gathering storm. While Dumbledore takes Harry along to recruit former colleague Horace Slughorn to return to Hogwarts as new potions professor and, he hopes, to provide crucial revelations about Voldemort, Harry’s student nemesis, Draco Malfoy, prepares to commit a heinous crime designed to pave the way for Voldemort’s comeback.
While Harry remains mindful of his status as the “Chosen One,” he is not entirely exempt from the lusts, jealousies and intrigues that preoccupy his fellow teenagers as never before. While Harry’s growing fondness for Ron’s sister Ginny is slowly developing, Ron is a sitting duck for the attentions of the irrepressible Lavender Brown. But, as we know, the brilliant Hermione unaccountably loves the comparatively slow-witted Ron, and she has only Harry’s shoulder to cry on when he’s not squiring space cadet Luna Lovegood.
But assessing the romantic entanglements is not nearly as much fun as simply beholding the big physical changes in the young actors, whose onscreen maturation will have been documented across the span of a decade when all is said and done. The biggest change since “Phoenix” two years ago has been registered by Tom Felton, who plays Malfoy; he’s now a tall stringbean in the Jimmy Stewart mold, with a face that’s come to resemble that of Jonathan Pryce, and he towers over Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry, who looks to be the shortest person in the cast (not true when Imelda Staunton was around).
Rupert Grint, as Ron, has always looked a tad older than the others and continues to while showing more character. Emma Watson, perennially appealing as Hermione, has become a very attractive young woman, and Bonnie Wright’s Ginny intrigues as the sort of initial plain Jane who keeps growing on you.
Joining such returning stalwarts as Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane and Warwick Davis among the Hogwarts staff is Jim Broadbent, who makes a terrific disguised entrance and is then simply grand as the eccentric old prof whom Harry presses for crucial insights into Voldemort; latter’s student incarnation as Tom Riddle is seen in two crucial memory sequences.
It’s this chapter in the Potter saga that obliges the always nasty but ambiguously motivated Severus Snape to show his true colors, and the indispensable Rickman delivers, as always, with line readings that are delicacies of the infinitely mordant kind. He is periodically egged on by the insidious Bellatrix Lestrange, a role Helena Bonham Carter plays with such mesmerizing abandon that one hopes the role fully pays off in the final chapter.
The particulars of Dumbledore’s final quest with Harry could prove a bit confusing to the uninitiated, although there are unlikely to be many of those in the audience at this stage. Otherwise, the film is clear-headed and clean-lined; now that he’s at home with the material, Yates has made a “Potter” picture that is less desperate to please than any of its predecessors, itself a sign of series maturity.
Among the always outstanding production values and top-drawer visual effects, special note should be made of series newcomer Bruno Delbonnel’s exceptionally atmospheric cinematography and Nicholas Hooper’s emotionally churning score, which contains only the slightest trace of John Williams’ original themes.
After two PG-13-rated entries, this one has won a PG, matching the first three. At 153 minutes, “Half-Blood Prince” is the third-longest feature in the series and seems just about right; “Order of the Phoenix,” at 138 minutes, actually felt too short.