The sixth Harry Potter movie is essentially a film in limbo. It begins with a wordless shot of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) still reeling in emotional agony from the events of the last movie, and ends on a miserable moment with no sense of hope, or of a plan for the future. Those two anguished sequences set the tone for a fantasy-franchise installment that’s more about atmosphere than story; between them, many things happen, but only the last 20 minutes or so have real repercussions. The rest is buildup, backstory, and plot sidebars signifying nothing, but it’s mighty artful nothing, in which beautifully designed and composed shots and a relentlessly ominous mood give a surprising weight to adolescent love affairs and an exceedingly minor mystery.
To the degree that Half-Blood Prince has a plot rather than a series of milestones in the vast, eight-film arc set to conclude in 2011 (the last book will be split into two films), it revolves around teen wizard Harry Potter trying to pry key information about his evil arch-nemesis Voldemort out of meek, self-serving magic teacher Jim Broadbent. Simultaneously, Harry tries to deduce the identity of “the half-blood prince” who used to own his old textbook, and various romantic developments absorb his friends Ron, Hermione, and Ginny. Familiar characters pop in and out for cameos, and the film even finds time for Quidditch, though director David Yates (who helmed the last series installment, and will tackle the last two as well) finds ways to make even a silly made-up sport played on flying broomsticks look grim and melancholy.
But the film’s real focus is on the evolving sense of dread taking over Harry’s world, for reasons barely seen at all in the film. And all this creeps forward at a remarkably unhurried, deliberate pace, the antithesis of the series’ opening films, with their giddy roller-coaster feel and “Whee! Magic!” theme. It takes a significant amount of investment in the Harry Potter world to make Half-Blood Prince relevant, let alone sensible; the film makes no concession to newbies, and thankfully spends virtually no time reiterating points already covered in previous installments. But those already involved will find that the series has matured much as the books did. This is the darkest, saddest, most sophisticated Harry Potter film yet.