Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: That Old Potter Magic Still Beguiles

“You see, Harry, you must take the A-train if you want to get to Harlem.”

Don't let the PG rating fool you: The dark arts are back with a vengeance in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the generally grim, occasionally startling and altogether enthralling sixth chapter in a movie franchise that keeps managing to surprise just when one would expect it to be puttering along on auto-broomstick. Going a few shades blacker than 2007's already funereal Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, this penultimate Potter picture includes the firebombing of a series regular's home, an episode of demonic possession, and multiple attempts on the life of Harry himself. The greater threat, however, is those unseen forces that compete for the hearts of boy wizards.

You can credit Potter creator J.K. Rowling with some of the darkening mood, but also director David Yates, the British TV veteran and feature-film neophyte who brought a nightmarish jolt to Order of the Phoenix. Yates, who returns to the director's chair for Half-Blood Prince, may not be as lyrical a film artist as Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), but he's a bracing stylist in his own right, whose gritty, tactile images seem of a piece with the story's descent into what Joseph Campbell termed "the belly of the whale." By the end of Phoenix, Harry had once more narrowly escaped the clutches of the resurrected Lord Voldemort, witnessed the demise of his last living relative and beheld a prophecy that says when it comes to Harry and the Dark Lord, only one can survive. And, as the story resumes, death is once again rapping on young Mr. Potter's door.

Here we get a double-barreled detective story, with the venerable Hogwarts headmaster, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), searching for clues to Voldemort's apparent invincibility, while Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) ferrets out an assassin lurking among the student body. Mostly, though, the film concerns itself with matters of destiny and the origins of evil. Like many a mythical arch villain, Voldemort was once a boy too, plucked by Dumbledore from a Dickensian orphanage and enrolled in Hogwarts, where he quickly rose to the head of the class, until the tree of wizardly knowledge tempted him with its forbidden fruit. Now, a present-day Hogwarts student may be preparing to follow in the Dark Lord's footsteps.


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Directed by David Yates. Written by Steve Kloves. Based on the novel by J.K. Rowling. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Michael Gambon, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Evanna Lynch and Jim Broadbent. Now playing.

The movie isn't all gloom and doom, mind you: After the mercifully quidditch-free Phoenix, the sport of choice for Hogwarts athletes is back. So, for that matter, are the adolescent hormonal stirrings that wreak havoc on longtime BFFs Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). There's an expanded role this time for Harry's moon-child classmate Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch). And, lest he be the one U.K. character actor of his generation not already gainfully employed by the Potter factory, Jim Broadbent joins the cast as Horace Slughorn.

With his quivering voice and fusty, absentminded charm, Slughorn is the sort of teacher we've all had at one time or another—an avuncular, unapologetically old-fashioned bachelor or widower who endears himself to his students by treating them as equals, and who, in turn, validates himself through his students' successes. He "collects" people, Dumbledore advises Harry—literally, in the case of the photos of famous ex-pupils adorning his mantel. But Slughorn also carries a deep, private shame, and Broadbent, who plays the part quite brilliantly, lets it infect the character's entire physicality. Perhaps it goes without saying that a photo of Slughorn's most famous former student is conspicuously missing from that gilded shrine.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince won't make converts out of those who can't tell a Thestral from a Dementor. But I'd be lying if I didn't say this movie gave me as much innocent pleasure as any I've seen this year.

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