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Thursday, July 16, 2009

In Latest ‘Harry Potter,’ Rage and Hormones

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 onto this epic endeavor 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. The series is now almost as old (it took off in 2001) as Harry was when he started his journey, which found the orphan whisked after his 11th birthday from a cramped, tragic nook to Hogwarts, a school of witchcraft and wizardry in a parallel world teeming with wondrous creatures, including an embarrassment of lavishly talented British screen actors.


Surgically adapted by Steve Kloves, who has written all the screenplays save for No. 5, “The Half-Blood Prince” was to be the penultimate film, the corollary to the J. K. Rowling book. Instead, the concluding volume, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” has been deemed hefty enough by Warner Brothers — 784 hardcover pages, 2.4 pounds shipping weight, a fight to the death — to be split into two movies that will hit in late 2010 and summer 2011. Considering that the take for Harry Potter and His Big Pot of Cinematic Gold now totals almost $4.5 billion in international box office, the studio’s reluctance to embrace the end is touchingly obvious.

But, seriously, could we just get on with it? 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. Mr. Yates, who directed the last movie, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which also arrived in summer 2007, does a fine job of keeping Ms. 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 filler.

Not that he doesn’t juice the material for all it’s worth, starting with some preliminary mayhem meant to signal that this isn’t your 10-year-old’s Harry Potter.

After a nod to the last movie’s big finish, with Harry bloodied but victorious, the new picture opens in London, where an office filled with nonmagical humans (Muggles, in Rowling-speak) are staring out the high-rise windows — as slack-jawed, presumably, as those filling theater seats — at sinister gray clouds surging in the sky. Suddenly three plumes of black smoke, Death Eaters in fast, fuming motion, cut through the moody overhead dome, race through the streets and wobble the pedestrian-only Millennium Bridge that slings across the Thames, snapping cables, fatally upending human bodies and further unnerving the wizardly world.

If you haven’t been keeping up with the story, well, there’s always Wikipedia. Although Mr. Kloves has done an admirable job tailoring Ms. Rowling’s progressively longer and baggier books, he or, perhaps more accurately, the series’s 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 Ralph Fiennes’s nephew, and Frank is the son of the terrific actor Stephen Dillane (Thomas Jefferson in the HBO mini-series “John Adams”). The younger Mr. 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 Ralph 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

By MANOHLA DARGIS

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