The tragedy of the life of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is spelled out right at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) when Harry, reading a story in a newspaper about himself is interrupted by the coquetting of a pulchritudinous waitress (Elarica Gallacher). “Eleven,” she tells him, answering his unasked question about when she’s freed from work. If Harry Potter were any other teenager, and if the world he lives in were any other place, I imagine he could have himself a lovely time with that waitress, but alas, he has to follow Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) on a journey to collect a man who has turned himself into an easy chair. Most teens are allotted a few years to be young and irresponsible, but Harry doesn’t have time for flirty waitresses, not when it seems Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has hedged his bets by splitting his soul up and sticking the pieces in hidden and far-flung artifacts and it’s up to Harry and Dumbledore to find them. It wouldn’t be too fair to the waitress anyway, having to excuse himself during dates at the slightest news of a possessed locket in a faraway cave.
Despite this essential tragedy, here is a cheerier Potter in many ways, one that is more in in line with director David Yates’ strengths. In his second go round as director Yates displays a lighter touch, his wonderful eye for empathy is on full display and the handling of the less weighty material, as romantic rivals threaten to unravel the tight-knit trio of Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). He also uses his composition skills to comedic effect. There’s a shot of a student getting a stern lecture from Snape (Alan Rickman, rarely better) while Harry squeamishly examines the drapes trying to get away; there’s another wonderfully composed shot where Harry and a professor are framed around bushes of dangerously moving vines that proceeds a funeral for a spider that is both surreal and touching. In these scenes Radcliffe gets to display a comedic ability that he has heretofore been forced to hide.
The man who is the easy chair is Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) a former teacher at the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry whom headmaster Dumbledore wants to bring back to school. Slughorn has a memory of a time when he taught Tom Riddle, the young wizard who would become the evil Voldemort. Dumbledore wants to apprehend that memory because he thinks it holds the secret to the dark lord’s undoing. In the wizard world, a memory can be taken from someone’s head as a physical object and looked at just as it was. I imagine this would be rather useful. The existence of these memories allows us to go back in time a bit, giving us a portrait of the wizard as a young man, troubled and uneasy. In the present, the adult Voldemort has given the task of killing Dumbledore to the school bully Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), who, as the series has gone on, has gotten deeper and deeper into serious trouble while more and more eliciting our sympathy. He’s put-upon and lonely, a fact Yates is able to suggest without spelling it out. It’s not intended to be a secret but the way he photographs Felton is subtly powerful. For five years he’s been the snotty antagonizer, and while he’s no less snotty or antagonistic here, we’re invited into private moments of a decent person who’s gotten in over his head.
The movie has the usual action set pieces including a fine one in a cave with any number of dangers but it really shines in quiet scenes of humor or truth, often both at the same time. My mind travels back to the odd spider funeral, or a scene in which Harry and Ron, when presented a choice between a new school book and a ratty old one, lunge, as magical and non-magical students alike have for time immemorial, for the new one. Ron has had his bouts with jealously when it comes to Harry’s fame but here the studious Hermione has the opportunity to see green when Harry suddenly becomes a crack student, intruding onto her turf. Hermione has her fill of jealousy this time as Ron, who’s always been destined for her, finds puppy love with a very annoying, very clingy schoolmate. There’s also one last moment of the awe-inducing ability of magic when Dumbledore performs a spell that puts a ransacked room back to order. It’s a nice nod to the original feeling of these stories, which are, after all, about a boy that discovers magic is real.
There’s an easy charm to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, it doesn’t bolt through its plot and is happy to take diversions. Further, we’re nearing the end now and when the story does dominate the movie it feels substantial unlike some of the beats in the middle pictures, which feel like filler. The dominoes are all about to fall, which is almost a shame, because they are set up so nicely.