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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Once more into that breach, Harry!

The Harry Potter movies present special hazards for a reviewer. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; the series is virtually unique in the history of popular cinema.

I can’t think of another series of movies that’s so ambitious in sheer scope. The Potter serial isn’t the longest, but it’s longer, and more demanding in its way than, say, the Star Wars franchise and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Like the immensely popular J.K. Rowling children’s fiction on which they’re based, these movies comprise an extended, fantastical epical narrative and many viewers come to them equipped with accessible memory banks from their consumption of the novels. Those who haven’t read them run some risk of being at least a little baffled, although up through the first five movies, this hasn’t proved to be an insurmountable obstacle. (I write as one of the benighted). You could get a feel for the general drift of things without previous exposure.

I don’t think that’s going to be true for a lot of people who catch the newest entry, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. From its pacey, montage-aided start, to its sorrow-ridden, somewhat anti-climactic close, I never stopped feeling a little perplexed. David Yates’ movie conveys a sense of undigested material and plot lines hurried through or omitted.

Of course, there’s a lot of the familiar stuff: Most of the same characters (and the same company of superior actors from the British Isles), the ongoing story elements, and, though it will scarcely matter to most of both the initiated and the less informed, Rowling’s apparent gestures toward influences like Christian eschatology and English boarding school novels (Tom Brown’s School Days, e.g.)

But Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves have created an alternatively rushed, digressive, and, finally, somewhat muddled movie. Half-Blood Prince involves young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and friends with the increasingly ominous and aggressive insurrection of Lord Voldemort, the “fallen angel” of the wizard world, and Harry joins with Hogwarts Academy’s headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) to uncover a secret, long-passed incident between potions instructor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) and Tom Riddle, a.k.a. Voldemort. Interrupting, and delaying, that plot thrust are the stops for the budding and blighted adolescent romantic experiences of Harry and his two BFFs, Hermione and Ron (Emma Watson and Rupert Grint).

Kloves and Yates seem to have had trouble processing all this. A non-initiate can only guess that compressing and translating to the screen what may have worked as a mood-changing literary narrative proved too much for the filmmakers. Which is at least a modest shame. Yates, who directed the last Potter movie (Order of the Phoenix) is developing into a crackerjack scene setter and actors’ director. He composes and paces much of the action impressively. Scenes frequently look great and pull you into what’s going on. But too often, the momentum slackens before a scene has gone anywhere satisfactory.

Yates also has the benefit of perhaps the best sustained performance of any in this series. Broadbent’s Slughorn is a little marvel of quiet wit and poignance. It feels like it belongs in something more substantial, like a Dickens adaptation.

Half-Blood-Prince was, as almost everyone now knows, originally scheduled to open last November. Everyone connected with its making has denied that the delay was due to anything more than a marketing calculation, but I’ve wondered if the oddly ineffective script was in any way a factor.

Half-Blood-Prince isn’t likely to heavily alter eventual judgements on this series’ success, or its long-term-asset value for Warner Bros. But to even a non-member of the International Order of Potterians, this one is a bit of a disappointment.

Watch the trailer for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

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