Death Eaters are on the rampage, Dumbledore (Gambon) has a task for Harry (Radcliffe), Draco Malfoy (Felton) has a secret mission for Voldemort, adolescent hormones are raging and Harry inherits an old school text with notes in the margins from the mysterious Half-Blood Prince.
Where the devil is Basil Exposition when you need him? It seems so long ago – exactly two years in fact – since we left Harry Potter and friends, and anyone not of Mastermind standard on all things Pottery can be forgiven for not being sure where we got to. The decision of Warner Bros to forego its pre-Christmas release makes financial sense for their 2009 accounting, and the millions of Potterites are without doubt good to go. But even a protracted introductory bit of back-story chitchat between Daniel Radcliffe’s boy wizard and his mentor, Michael Gambon’s Professor Dumbledore, doesn’t refresh the memory for mere Muggles.
So, for those not quite up to speed, Previously on Harry Potter: Sirius died, Lucius Malfoy was packed off to Azkaban and a revitalized Voldemort continues lurking (but not in this picture). Now Dumbledore is intent on extra private life-lessons for Harry, whose assistance is required to sleuth out a key secret from Voldemort’s youth as Tom Riddle. As befits the Hogwarts tradition of dodgy instructors, another new eccentric professor is engaged: Jim Broadbent’s Horace Slughorn. His area of expertise is Potions, which creates opportunities for several fiascos – fun to potentially fatal – involving concoctions for love, luck and painful death. Ominously, the master for Defense Against the Dark Arts (a position that bodes ill each and every school year) is now Alan Rickman’s inscrutable don Severus Snape, whose withering way with one-liners and inexhaustible creepiness continue to be a highlight of the whole shebang.
The artistic challenge has always been telling a story that stands up whether or not one is au fait with the J. K. Rowling canon. It’s only just about met this time. The earliest films sprawled though every chapter of the source novels, fearful of leaving anything out and enthusiastic in realizing every bit of whimsy in the wizardy world of Hogwarts. The middle films picked up the pace with freer adaptation as developments grew darker. The Half-Blood Prince reverts to overlength (screenwriter Steve Kloves has returned to duty), but still wrestles with blending the impending doom side of things (manifestations of which were a tad distressing to our smaller audience consultants) with the humour, heartache and angst of adolescent amours essential to what is, after all, a coming of age chronicle. But major plot points slip by (we’re still wondering what a horcrux is exactly!), big doings seem rushed and more everyday goings on extended. Do we really need another game of Quidditch to lighten the mood, when a destiny of doom and gloom is supposed to be closing in? Given the much-trailered destruction in London that opens the film, it seems odd that the consequences of that or anything else in the outside world don’t rate a mention.
The acting is once again wildly variable. The renowned elder thespians, apart from Gambon, Broadbent and Rickman, barely feature, with the emphasis on the youngsters – and while the leads have grown with their characters some of the teens are, frankly, dull and graceless. Two new additons, however, in Hero Fiennes Tiffin (Ralph’s nephew) and Frank Dillane (Stephen’s son) prove apples don’t fall far from the tree by being appropriately unnerving as Tom Riddle (who will, of course, grow up to become Voldemort) at age 11 and 16 respectively in key flashbacks.
The standout achievement in the film is knockout spectacle, courtesy of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Stuart Craig, with one climactic sequence amid flames giving Dumbledore his Moses parting the Red Sea moment. That’s the image we’ll remember best until HP7 Part One arrives, ETA November, 2010.
Were marking time before the final battle between Good and Evil, with the promised darkness sitting somewhat clumsily with teen romance and humour.