Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince smartly and skillfully continues the direction the series has been heading, namely, what began as a mediocre and at times barely tolerable children’s franchise has become dark and brooding young adult adventure, more willing to test the waters of realistic emotions and plots and reap the rewards of greater risk. The sixth film in the series inspired by J.K. Rowling’s novels — which wrapped after seven volumes, though the final book is being split in half to make two films, presumably to allow for greater adherence to story but also probably more likely just so Warner Bros. can keep milking the cash cow an extra year — is one of the best yet, a mix of mystery and vague horror with a solid story that enhances the coming-of-age aspects confronting the heroes. The series reached a genuine turning point with 2005’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, upping the stakes by visiting genuine sacrifice on the young inhabitants of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and every film since then has placed an increasing emphasis not on the gee-whiz angle of the magic so clumsily illustrated in Chris Columbus’ first two films but on the practical application of otherwordly feats to very real situations. Once again under the direction of David Yates — who helmed the previous installment, 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and will return for the two-part closer Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2010-2011 — the story pushes into new and forbidding territory, growing up as nervously but ultimately as confidently as its characters.
The film opens with Harry killing time at the end of his summer vacation, but instead of retreading the rote sequences in which Harry deals with his cartoonishly daft relatives, Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves (who’s adapted every one of the books except for Order of the Phoenix) put Harry where any 16-year-old would want to be: Trying to win the attentions of his attractive waitress at a diner. The Potter books have always straddled the line between outright fable and more playful attempts at magical realism, but the naturalness of the opening scene proves that, even on a toned-down level, the kids are going to start acting more like recognizable high-schoolers. Soon enough, though, Harry’s scooped up by Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), the aged Hogwarts headmaster, for some errands involving a retired professor of magic, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). Harry’s first encounter with Slughorn isn’t without lighter moments, as when the older man attempts to disguise himself as an armchair to avoid detection, but Yates’ m.o. never strays far from an atmosphere of claustrophobic British horror, doing wonders with gray skies, dark corners, and moments of worried silence.
The bulk of the film, as is the pattern, follows Harry through the school year, which is usually where the storylines tend to meander: He goes to classes, bumps his head against some mysteries, and tries to work things out. But Half-Blood Prince comes across stronger than the others films because of the momentum invested in the character relationships that’s finally paying off. Harry finds an old potions textbook inscribed as the property of the Half-Blood Prince that helps him do well in his lessons, but the film’s real focus is on the romantic ventures and failures of Harry, best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron’s kid sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright). The story coasts along on the charms of befuddled teens coming to grips with heavy emotions, and it also knows better than to allow them easy access to real happiness. Some of the most genuine moments come not from the larger plot involving Harry’s pursuit of evil but from the tangled paths Harry and his friends are trying to walk among each other.
But that pursuit of evil is still the main thing driving the film, which does a well enough job at feeling cohesive even as it struggles mightily to cram in as many of the book’s plot points as possible. Harry’s rivalry with fellow student Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) reaches new levels of anger, betrayal, and just plain fighting. Even the Quidditch matches — a rugby-based game with nonsensical scoring played on flying brooms — are less celebratory than in earlier films and more of the brutal fight that’s more and more come to define life for Harry. Harry’s convinced that Draco is working for Voldemort, the dark lord who killed Harry’s parents when he was an infant, and additionally, Harry’s been tasked by Dumbledore with investigating Slughorn’s possible connection to Voldemort, and it’s those two threads that mostly run through the film. Yates does a yeoman’s job making sense of an adaptation that occasionally strays into dead space as often as it’s guilty of packing scenes a little too quickly, as if hoping to appease fans of the books by hitting a requisite number of moments. Some sequences are played out while other revelations are given short shrift, making for some mysteries that aren’t as clean as they would be on the page. But for the most part, the film moves smoothly.
Radcliffe is, for the most part, growing into the role, and he’s best when required to act like a goofy teen. But he’s also shown he can rise up when summoned to move through more challenging moments, and there are dark passages here when he overcomes his stiffness and is believably stricken by the death and heartbreak around him and becomes determined to fight back. Grint and Watson, though, are even better in their supporting roles, with Grint feeling his oats as a sidekick finally finding luck with women and Watson at last beginning to bring some nuance to her performance. For all its attendant (and welcome) darkness, the screenplay also has its share of jokes and character-based humor, and the chemistry among the three on-screen friends at the heart of the story is casual and real. Most of the adult roles are filled by what feels like every British actor working today, but Gambon, as well as Alan Rickman as the mercurial Severus Snape, are the anchors. They go a long way toward grounding the tale, and the complexity with which they view the world around them is a nice signpost for where Harry will have to go.
That’s ultimately what Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is for the series: A sign of things to come. The evolution begun with the fourth installment, when Harry first confronted Voldemort and the story promised interesting things to come, is now paying off with the franchise’s darkest and most involving entry yet, right up there with Goblet of Fire in terms of skillful execution and successful structure. This chapter ends with a moment of steeled resolve as Harry prepares himself to make the journey and fight his enemy once and for all, a showdown that’s been long in coming. The film is eerie, funny, interesting, and entertaining for most of its surprisingly nimble 153 minutes, enjoyable as much for what’s on screen as what’s on the horizon.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.