In his last two movies, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) was becoming an adolescent. In this gripping and atmospheric film, based on the sixth book in the series, Harry Potter is becoming a man. He knows who he is and what he must do. He is angry and at times he is still impatient. He is developing confidence and judgment. But he is not yet ready to admit to himself, much less to Ron Weasley’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) that he likes her very much.
Once again, author J.K. Rowling and screenwriter Steve Kloves expertly blend the most intimate and personal of teenage feelings with the grander concerns about the fate of the world. Indeed the two themes do more than blend; they complement each other. The threats deepen and become more complex as the children grow up. The personal is political, and vice versa.
As the film begins, the disturbances in the wizard world have become so pervasive that even the muggle society is affected. In an early scene that highlights sleek, post-industrial London, we see a bridge collapse due to a form of terrorist attack by the Death Eaters, the followers of He Who Must Not Be Named. But then we are back to the Victorian intricacies of the wizard world of Diagon Alley and Hogwarts. Harry is reputed to be the “chosen one” who can defeat Lord Voldemort. But there is another chosen one. Draco Malfoy, his father disgraced and in prison, returns to Hogwarts having undertaken some task so dangerous that his mother and aunt have visited Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) to insist on his unbreakable vow to provide support and protection.
Director David Yates and “Amelie” cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel brilliantly evoke the magical world, narrow, constricting spaces emphasizing the dire circumstances and adult awareness closing in on the characters. The special effects are organic and absorbing. Oddly, just moments after a beautiful transformation from easy chair to wizard, the one effect that does not work as smoothly is the simplest, as the footage is run backwards to magically restore a room that has been trashed. But the more complex effects and the overall look of the film are superb.
There is a new teacher of Defense Against the Dark Arts, of course. This time it is Snape, his Potions class taken over by Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), who shows a special fondness for “collecting” star students like Harry but whose memory holds a crucial key to Voldemort’s strength — and his vulnerability. An exposition-heavy entry in the book series that sets up the powerful final volume (being split in two for filming) is absorbing on screen due to its control of tone and atmosphere and some truly creepy moments involving Helena Bonham Carter, happily gruesome as Bellatrix Lestrange and a couple of marvelously-staged action sequences.
There are classroom scenes as Harry finds help in an old potions textbook with an inscription that says it belonged to the “Half-Blood Prince” and extensive annotations that help him become a top student. There is a Quidditch game and a battle in one of the huge Hogwarts bathrooms. But increasingly the activities of Harry and his loyal friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson).expand beyond the classrooms. Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) relies on Harry for help in exposing Voldemort, their relationship developing into more of a partnership. Dumbledore’s most important lesson may be that Harry can do some things that even Dumbeldore cannot. This makes us, as well as Harry, all the more eager to see what comes next.