Are we there yet? Well, not quite. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the latest big-screen iteration of the global phenomenon, is merely the sixth chapter in a now eight-part series that, much like its young hero, played by Daniel Radcliffe, has begun to show signs of stress around the edges, a bit of fatigue, or maybe that’s just 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 on to this epic endeavour like a damp, enveloping fog and at times threatened to snuff out its joy as terminally as a soul-sucking Dementor.
That any sense of play and pleasure remains amid all the doom and the dust, the poisonous potions and murderous sentiments, is partly a testament to the remarkable sturdiness of this movie franchise, which has transformed in subtle and obvious fashion, changing in tandem with the sprouting bodies and slowly evolving personalities of its young, now teenage characters.
Stale: (from left) Grint, Watson and Radcliffe in the movie. Warner Bros, Jaap Buitendjik / AP
For at least one committed follower of the series, who closed the last chapter on Harry soon after The Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, the lag time between the final books and the movies has drained much of the urgency from this screen adaptation, which, far more than any of the previous films, comes across as an afterthought. Yates, who directed the last movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, does a fine job of keeping Rowling’s multiple parts in balanced play, nimbly shifting between the action and the adolescent soap operatics. Yet even with a surer directorial touch, he can’t keep the whole thing from feeling like a filler.
Although scriptwriter Steve Kloves has done an admirable job tailoring Rowling’s progressively longer and baggier books, he or, perhaps more accurately, the series’ producers have not made many concessions for the uninitiated. If you have kept pace, you will grasp why Dumbledore (the invaluable Michael Gambon), the headmaster of Hogwarts, has placed so much trust in Harry, a callow student with prodigious wizard gifts and little discernable personality. The chosen one, Harry has been commissioned to destroy the too-little-seen evildoer Voldemort, a sluglike ghoul usually played by Ralph Fiennes (alas, seen only briefly this time out) and here played, in his early embodied form as Tom Riddle, by the excellent young actors Hero Fiennes Tiffin and Frank Dillane.
There must be a factory where the British mint their acting royalty: Hero, who plays the dark lord as a spectrally pale, creepy child of 11, is Fiennes’ nephew, and Frank is the son of the terrific actor Stephen Dillane (Thomas Jefferson in the HBO mini-series John Adams). The younger Dillane, who plays Voldemort at 16, conveys the seductiveness of evil with small, silky smiles he bestows like dangerous gifts on Jim Broadbent’s Horace Slughorn, a professor whose trembling jowls suggest a deeper tremulousness. When Slughorn, the fear almost visibly leaking from his body, shares the secret of immortality with Voldemort, you feel, much as when Fiennes raged through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2005, that something vital is at stake.
If that sense of exigency rarely materializes in The Half-Blood Prince, it’s partly because the series finale is both too close and too far away and partly because Radcliffe and his co-stars Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, as Harry’s friends Hermione and Ron, have grown up into three prettily manicured bores. Unlike the veterans, notably the sensational Alan Rickman, who invests his character, Prof. Severus Snape, with much-needed ambiguity, drawing each word out with exquisite luxury, bringing to mind a buzzard lazily pulling at entrails, Radcliffe in particular proves incapable of the most crucial 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.
©2009/The New York Times
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince released on Thursday.
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