Are we there yet? Well, not quite. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,the big-screen adaption of the international phenomenon, is simply the sixth chapter in a now eight-part saga that, much like its young hero, portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe, has started to show signs of stress around the edges, a bit of fatigue, or perhaps that’s simply my gnawing impatience.
Not that the director, David Yates, doesn’t keep things moving and flying and soaring, his cameras slashing through the gloom that has settled onto this epic endeavor like a damp, bringing up fog and occasionally threatened to snuff out its joy as incurably as a soul-sucking Dementor.
That any sense of play and pleasure remains amid all the doom and the ruin, the deadly potions and murderous sentiments, is partly a testament to the notable sturdiness of this movie series, which has transformed in subtle and obvious fashion, changing in tandem with the sprouting bodies and gradually evolving personalities of its young, now teenage characters. The Harry Potter franchise is now almost as old (it was first released in 2001) as Harry was when he began his journey, which saw the orphan whisked after his 11th birthday from a cramped, misery nook to Hogwarts, a school of witchcraft and wizardry in a parallel world teeming with wondrous creatures, including an embarrassment of lavishly brilliant British screen actors.
Skillfully adapted by Steve Kloves, who has written all the adaptions except for No. 5, The Half-Blood Prince was to be the penultimate movie, the corollary to the J. K. Rowling novel. Instead, the concluding chapter, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has been deemed heavily enough by Warner Brothers — 784 hardcover pages, 2.4 pounds shipping weight, a fight to the death — to be split into two films that took off in late 2010 and summer 2011. Considering that the take for Harry Potter and His Big Pot of Cinematic Gold now grosses almost $4.5 billion in global theater, the studio’s reluctance to embrace the end is touchingly clear.
But, seriously, could we just get on with it? For at least one committed fan of the saga, who closed the last chapter on Harry shortly after The Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, the lag time between the final novels and the films has drained much of the urgency from this screen adaptation, which, far more than any of the previous installments, comes across as an afterthought. Mr. Yates, who directed the last movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix which also arrived in summer 2007, does a fine job of keeping Ms. Rowling’s various parts in balanced play, meticulously shifting between the action and the youth soap operatics. Yet even with a more solid directorial touch, he can’t keep the entire thing from seeming like filler.
Not that he doesn’t milk the material for all it’s worth, starting with some preliminary mayhem with an intention to imply that this isn’t your 10-year-old’s Harry Potter.
After a nod to the last film’s grand finale, with Harry bloodied but triumphant, the new movie opens in London, where an office full of nonmagical humans (Muggles, in Rowling’s word) are overlooking through the high-rise windows — as slack-jawed, probably, as those filling theater seats — at sinister dark clouds surging in the sky. Suddenly three plumes of black smoke, Death Eaters in fast, fuming motion, cut through the moody overhead dome, race through the streets and wobble the pedestrian-only Millennium Bridge that slings across the Thames, snapping cables, fatally upending human bodies and further unnerving the wizardly world.
If you haven’t been keeping up with the story, well, there’s always Wikipedia. Although Mr. Kloves has done a beautiful job tailoring Ms. Rowling’s progressively longer and heavier novels, he or, perhaps more precisely, the franchise’s producers have yet made many concessions for the uninitiated. If you have kept up with the pace, you will know why Dumbledore (the great Michael Gambon), the headmaster of Hogwarts, has placed so much trust in Harry, a troubled student with prodigious wizard talents and little discernable personality. Being the chosen one, Harry is destined to conquer the too-little-seen evildoer Voldemort, a slug-like ghoul normally portrayed by Ralph Fiennes (alas, seen only briefly this time out) and here portrayed, in his early stage as Tom Riddle, by the stunning young actors Hero Fiennes Tiffin and Frank Dillane.
There must be a factory where the British churn out their acting royalty: Hero, who portrays the dark lord as a spectrally pale, creepy child of 11, is Ralph Fiennes’s nephew, and Frank is the son of the brilliant actor Stephen Dillane (Thomas Jefferson in the HBO mini-series “John Adams”). The younger Mr. Dillane, who portrays Voldemort at the age of 16, delivers the seductiveness of evil with small, silky smiles he bestows like threatening gifts on Jim Broadbent’s Horace Slughorn, a professor whose trembling jowls pose a deeper tremulousness. When Slughorn, the fear nearly visibly flowing out from his body, shares the secret of immortality with Voldemort, you feel, much as when Ralph Fiennes raged through 2005’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, that something crucial is at stake.
If that sense of exigency barely materializes in The Half-Blood Prince it’s partly due to the franchise finale is both too close and too far away and partly due to Mr. Radcliffe and his co-stars Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, playing Harry’s mates Hermione and Ron, have grown up into three beautifully manicured bores. Unlike the familiar faces, especially the sensational Alan Rickman, who invests his character, Professor Severus Snape, with much-needed ambiguity, drawing each word out with exquisite luxury, bringing to mind a buzzard lazily pulling at entrails, Mr. Radcliffe, especially, proves incapable of the most vital cinematic magic. Namely the alchemical transformation of dialogue into something that feels like passion, something that feels real and true and makes you as wild for Harry as for all those enticingly dark forces.