July 17, 2009 in Features

Review: ‘Half-Blood’ exciting from start to finish

Michael Sragow The Baltimore Sun
 

In “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” the gang at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry enters the molten thick of adolescence.

The director, David Yates, and the screenwriter, Steve Kloves, reward them with a film that bubbles and pops with humor and feeling. It flows like fast-moving lava to a climax filled with pyrotechnics.

And for once in a summer blockbuster, the fireworks are both emotional and physical. The movie leaves you sated, yet wanting more – just what you want from a series with two entries left to go.

“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” would be a first-rate fantasy even if the audience weren’t invested in the fortunes of boy wizard and “Chosen One” Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best friends, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson).

But viewers will respond with paroxysms of affection for actors who rediscover and freshen their characters as they grow from children to complicated young people.

Radcliffe has been gaining in heroic stature while wearing his authority lightly; in this film he masters a moral sort of guile.

Watson isn’t just a touching, brainy charmer; she’s also a game, resilient performer, with quicksilver timing. As Hermione, she pulls off rapid turns of phrase and expression that prove alternately poignant and hilarious, whether she’s reacting to Ron’s public displays of affection for another girl or to Harry’s potions-class success, based on the mysterious annotations written in his coursebook by a genius called the Half-Blood Prince.

Best of all, who would have thought Grint would become a comic of Shakespearean proportions? He brings off sequences of unlikely athletic success and amorous silliness that are as delightful and pure as any silent clown’s.

In “Half-Blood Prince,” the sixth in the movie series based on J.K. Rowling’s books, Harry continues his quest to stop the Satanic Lord Voldemort from achieving ultimate power and taking magic to the dark side, but the stakes are higher from the start. Death Eaters in the form of jet-black streams of cloud and gas terrorize Muggles as well as magic enemies with startling devastation and impunity.

Director Yates (who previously made “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”) and screenwriter Kloves (who wrote every Potter film except for that one) introduce this entry in the saga with splendid storytelling strokes.

The first section crackles with storybook esprit as they etch the new contours of the battle between Voldemort and his Death Eaters and Potter and his brilliant, enigmatic mentor, Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon).

When Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and the mother of Draco Malfoy slink down an alleyway en route to a secret meeting with Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), it’s as if they’re doing a Death Eater’s tango.

On the light side, Dumbledore introduces Harry to former Hogwarts potions professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), a would-be posh wizard who makes a spectacular comic entrance from the coziest corner of a living room. Harry soon learns that Dumbledore needs Slughorn to reveal what Voldemort told him when the Dark Lord was his potions student.

Gambon comes through with his subtlest big-screen performance; he and Radcliffe effortlessly embody the bonds of trust and fondness that should exist between growing children and true adult friends. Even when the film puts those bonds to the ultimate test, it never becomes sappy or jarringly melodramatic.

Yates and Kloves understand adolescence as an emotionally fluid time, and their visual team responds with torrents of liquid imagery. Memory here becomes a pool to swim in; mastering it becomes a means of growing up.

Once the filmmakers dispense with all their marvelous scene-setting, they settle into the creation of an endless sea of marvels. Everyone who swims through it – and especially Harry, Ron and Hermione – must master different strokes. With remarkable lucidity, they depict how each character’s choices form their personalities.

It’s no accident, of course, that Voldemort’s original name was Tom Riddle. Harry and his friends must struggle to find the riddle to his and their own characters.

After “The Half-Blood Prince,” you can’t wait for them to crack it.


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