For teenagers, everything seems like the end of the world: popularity, school, love, family, treacherous conspiracies, the war between good and evil wizards. Sometimes it's hard to keep things in perspective — as it must have been for David Yates in directing this adaptation of the penultimate volume in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, burdened as he is by the comic and tragic melodramas of his post-pubescent, hormonally confused cast — not to mention a five-volume backstory of Tolkienesque, if not Proustian, dimensions. But with the experience of the previous installment behind him and the guidance of Steve Kloves, who wrote the first four movies (among them the best, Alfonso Cuarón's The Prisoner of Azkaban), plus the talents of every major British actor requiring employment, he has rendered this episode with economy, wit, visual cogency, and darkening ambiguity.
|Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince | Directed by David Yeats | Written by Steve Kloves | Based on the novel by J.K. Rowling | with Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Jim Broadbent, and Tom Felton | Warner Bros. | 153 minutes|
Which means not only reducing the tedious Quidditch sequences but also the amount of gossipy chit-chat in the Hogwarts cafeteria about who's snogging whom. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), rumored as he is to be "The Chosen One" who will defeat arch-fiend Voldemort, has become a celebrity hounded by groupies. But for him it's an annoyance, since he's on the trail of toffee-nosed twit Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), whom he suspects of being "a Death-Eater," a minion of Voldemort. Harry's pals Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) dismiss his fears as paranoia, preoccupied as they are with their own love/hate relationship and Ron's inexplicable attractiveness to a pair of indistinguishable, predatory girls. Although this hanky-panky serves as comic relief at times and on one occasion is even touching, it mostly distracts from the grown-ups' more serious concerns.
Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), for example, needs to enlist Harry in a mysterious investigation into the intentions of Voldemort. A replay of memories collected into vials of pearly liquid reveals the wicked wizard's Dickensian origins and his reptilian rise to power as a star student at Hogwarts. But Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), Voldemort's favorite teacher, has redacted a crucial part of his contribution to the memory file, and rather than resort to waterboarding, Dumbledore has assigned Harry to sweet-talk the truth out of the waffling wizard.
This doesn't sound very exciting — and indeed, plot details threaten to overwhelm the narrative, which is already light on action. But the down time does allow actors usually overshadowed by special effects to demonstrate their skill. Alan Rickman as fishy Professor Snape is impeccable in his timing and line readings. His verbal inflections echo almost exactly those of Gambon's Dumbledore, the former sarcastic and the latter ironic.
What's more, The Half-Blood Prince's relative inertia allows for more complex and clarifying imagery, as realized by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Across the Universe). A climactic scene with Harry and Dumbledore in a seaside cave, nearly monochromatic and eerily dreamlike, evokes dread and melancholy. It combines pagan and Christian, Freudian and Jungian archetypes with somber authority, a still prelude to the final confrontation of The Deathly Hallows.