‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’: Darker magic

July 14, 2009

It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t already engrossed in the Harry Potter series of films deciding, “Oh, gee, I think I’ll see the new one – even though I haven’t seen any of the others.”


Either you’re on the Potter bus or you’re not. Either you’ve been captivated by J.K. Rowling’s series about a young wizard forced to deal with his destiny or you haven’t. Some people are fantasy-resistant – even if they have kids who are in Rowling’s thrall.


As far as the new film, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” it’s far too late for a newcomer to wander into the story for the first time and make any sense of it. Which says nothing about the film’s commercial prospects: After all, this is #6 in the series – and the previous five haven’t done too badly.


Each of the films, in fact, has been better than the last. For those of us who’ve been with this engrossing fantasy series from the start, “Half-Blood Prince” is thrilling storytelling, a sumptuous, engrossing tale based on what may be the series’ most compelling installment.


“Half-Blood Prince” is the sixth book, but it really concludes the overall story’s second act – Act Three being the massive seventh book, so sprawling that it will require two films to tell it in 2010. As such, “Half-Blood Prince” is packed with revelations, even as it leaves the audience hanging at the end – a la “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Two Towers.”


Indeed, this film – and the book on which it was based – jettison comfortably familiar signposts from the past. There is no comic opening interlude with Harry’s Muggle family, the dreaded Dursleys. There’s barely a sighting of Voldemort, the dark lord who has been the increasingly powerful villain throughout the series. In fact, there’s no preamble at all – just Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his mentor, Prof. Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), meeting in a London subway, then jumping into the story straightaway.


Dumbledore transports them to a London suburb, where they meet the story’s most important new character: Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), whom Dumbledore entices into coming out of retirement to teach at Hogwarts. Why he’s so eager to bring Slughorn back only becomes clear later.


Back at Hogwarts, the atmosphere for the new school year is markedly different. Since the reappearance of Voldemort and his followers, the Death Eaters, at the end of the last film, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the forces of darkness have marshaled their strength – so Hogwarts necessarily has become a fortress. Dumbledore and Harry spend time in Dumbledore’s office, watching memories Dumbledore has collected in the magical viewing pool known as the pensieve. The purpose: to find a clue to Voldemort’s weakness that will help them in what is obviously a looming showdown.


While they can temporarily keep Voldemort’s followers at bay, the Hogwarts faculty is helpless against another power: teen romance, which runs roughshod over Harry and friends Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, in various combinations.


That’s the comic relief; the suspense and drama come from Harry and Dumbledore’s secretive mission involving Slughorn and Voldemort, even as Harry tries to keep an eye on his nemeses: fellow student Draco Malfoy (Tom Fenton) and Prof. Snape (Alan Rickman). It builds to a climax of surprising impact.


J.K. Rowling’s books started as kids’ stories but, by the third installment, they had taken on a richness and depth that continued to build. It has to stand now as one of the most engrossing works of sustained storytelling of all time, operating on as many levels as you care to explore.


So it is with the film series: After two serviceable but more obviously lightweight movies directed by Chris Columbus, the films took on substance with the arrival of directors Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell and now David Yates, who will wind up directing the final four in the bunch.


Like the last three films, this one accepts the challenge of translating hundreds of pages of prose into compelling, fulfilling cinema. There’s so much meat to the main plot – Harry and Dumbledore vs. the Death Eaters – that it’s possible to grow impatient with the teen-romance subplot. Yet one part of the story feeds the other and both are explored to the extent necessary.


This is, after all, a family film, pitched at audiences young and old. Yates understands and serves the entire audience without compromising his vision. He doesn’t bore the adults, nor does he work over the heads of young viewers (though this is probably too intense for an under-8 viewer).


The three young leads – Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint – have grown into their roles; at some point, it will be fascinating to sit down and watch them age while viewing a boxed set of the complete series.


But the real pleasure of this film is the opportunity, finally, to see Michael Gambon given sufficient time on screen as Dumbledore. The added treat of Jim Broadbent, as the intriguingly complex Slughorn, is delicious. And then actors like Rickman, Maggie Smith and Robbie Coltrane pop up – and you remember, Right – this series has attracted the cream of British actors all along.


“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” isn’t the first film this summer to clock in at two-and-a-half hours – but it’s the first to make that time seem to fly by. If you’re not a Potterphile, move along, nothing to see here. But fans of the series will find this film eminently satisfying – so much so that you’ll come out eager to see the final installments right away. Sadly, no such luck.


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