It’s rare in the season of summer blockbusters that we get stories as magical and emotionally rich as “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” (Usually, it’s the bludgeoning assault of pictures like “Transformers,’ which are short on magic, big on noise and high on video-game technology.) Director David Yates (the BBC series “State of Play”), who also helmed the previous “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” elegantly weaves the special effects into the story so that the effects begin to re-earn their right to be called special. In the last adaptation, Yates competently pared down J.K. Rowling’s long, dense narrative. But, in doing so, he sacrificed the spectral beauty inherent in the tale in order to have the plot make sense. In this new picture, Yates is freer to allow the enchantment – and the dread – to bubble effortlessly out of the story. Although “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is a much shorter book, the film feels beautifully layered and sumptuous with plot.
In this sixth adaptation, the young wizards, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), and his best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) are growing into their adolescence as well as becoming newly seasoned sorcerers. Like most periods of adolescence, though, theirs is fraught with turbulence, trauma and sexual desire. And it comes right at the moment when the dark spirit of Lord Voldemort, who Harry first encountered in Mike Newell’s rather shapeless adaptation of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” unleashes a team of Death Eaters into the London skies to dismantle the Millennium Bridge. It’s a signal that soon Hogwarts, where the young alchemists study every year, will be under the threat of destruction. To prevent this, Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) employs Harry to dip into the school’s past to examine Voldemort’s own adolescence while studying there, in order to unravel the Dark Lord’s destructive plans.
If “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” doesn’t have the beautifully impassioned force of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” Yates (with the help of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel) creates a dreamier tale told in nightshade. The atmosphere itself becomes quietly charged so that the actors can ignite the story. Daniel Radcliffe has - literally – grown into the role of Harry and his mission to reveal the underlying plans of his parents’ killer while tentatively uncovering his desire for Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) gives the character a vulnerability allowing Radcliffe to wistfully abandon Harry’s youthful innocence. But Harry isn’t the whole show. Emma Watson continues to be one of the most inventively understated young actresses on the screen. Hermione has always carried a torch for Ron, but Ron has been too dense to notice. When he gets caught up in the childish infatuations of the obsessive Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), Watson finds reserves of pain and rage that seem to age Hermione right before our eyes. (In this story, the primal emotions of growing up and the illusive world of magic become intertwined.) Rupert Grint’s droll impishness begins to truly have consequences here and Grint retains his clownishness while nurturing a growing awareness of his sudden appeal as a young man.
“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” also introduces a new character Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), as the new potions professor. If Imelda Staunton, as the authoritarian Dolores Umbridge, was the comic ace-in-the-hole in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” Broadbent brings his appealing brand of tweedy charm to the picture. Unfortunately, the rest of the adult cast – including Alan Rickman’s gloomy and unnerving Snape, David Thewlis’ touching Remus Lupin and Maggie Smith’s stately Minerva McGonagall – make merely brief appearances. But that may be because “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is really about the young now making their passage into adulthood. Without assaulting the intelligence and temperament of the audience, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” casts its own lingering and alluring spell.