Harry Potter: Darker, Richer and All Grown Up

6 minute read
Richard Corliss

The mood is dark. Death eaters blight the skies, sent on their sorties by the fiendish Lord Voldemort, and in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a grim fate encircles one teenage boy like a noose around his soul. The adult he reveres most in the world has given him a mission to destroy a hugely powerful wizard, yet as he gazes in a mirror, the quivering face staring back at him belies his resolve to do the deed. It’s a dreadful burden on someone barely out of childhood, in his sixth year at Hogwarts. Will Draco Malfoy be able to do Voldemort’s bidding and kill Albus Dumbledore?

From the publication of the first Harry Potter book in 1997 to the final volume a decade later, J.K. Rowling’s septet of adventures has enchanted tens of millions of kids, their older siblings and all those adults who are as fascinated by the wizarding world as any child. The books held many delights for the very young: the Quidditch matches, magical beasts and wand work. But as Harry and his classmates entered puberty, Rowling began to address a time of grand and awful responsibilities, the transformation of the body before the mind is ready, the queasy realization that every decision can have ecstatic or cataclysmic consequences. In a word, adolescence.

The Potter film adaptations, after a subpar start in late 2001, have grown in richness and power until, in aggregate, they stand close to the summit of multipart movies–more sprawling if less artistically ambitious than The Lord of the Rings, more consistently intelligent though less original than the six Star Wars films. By the time the series is completed with a two-part telling of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, due to open in November 2010 and July 2011, its release cycle will be nearly as long as the 10 years Rowling took to publish her books.

Beyond its longevity records and the billions it has amassed in box-office and DVD revenues, the Harry Potter series is a proud, mammoth act of commercial, communal filmmaking. It’s Hollywood at its finest, though the setting, accent, ensemble cast and most of the creative team are–as with the James Bond films–distinctly English.

With Half-Blood Prince, again we have a stalwart, satisfying visualization of the Rowling cosmos. Screenwriter Steve Kloves (his fifth Potter script) and director David Yates, the BBC veteran (State of Play, Sex Traffic) who also helmed Order of the Phoenix, concoct a potent brew of horror and romance, in which the supercool special effects–notably a swoopy-cam ride with the Death Eaters as they soar over London’s monuments and through its creepiest streets–never obscure a commitment to the book’s central theme. True to Rowling’s portrayal of the teen experience, the film is almost wholly occupied with school: the business of getting good grades (sometimes by cheating) and the influence of inspiring or maleficent teachers. Plus, of course, sex.

That’s sex in a very PG, Potter fashion. The “snogging” engaged in by the 16-year-olds has a chaste, comic choreography, as if kissing were a minuet of locked lips. When Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his pal Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) talk furtively about the girls they’re mad for, it’s to acknowledge vaguely that they have “nice skin.” And when our hero’s notoriety makes the Hogwarts girls just wild about Harry, his friend-girl Hermione (Emma Watson) can’t suppress a little sulfur puff of rancor. “She’s only interested in you,” Hermione snits about one lass, “because she thinks you’re the Chosen One.” Harry’s playful reply has a matter-of-fact finality: “I am the Chosen One.” That’s his honor, curse and destiny.

Father Figures

Three other Hogwarts boys–one in the present, two from the past–have virtually the same burden: they’ve been chosen to play crucial roles in the great conflict. One shadowy figure is a student whose old, annotated schoolbook, marked PROPERTY OF THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE, helps Harry ace his potions course and perform some vital magic. The other, seen in flashbacks, is the brilliant, troubling Tom Riddle, Voldemort to be, whom Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) recruits from an orphanage to Hogwarts. As played at 11 by Hero Fiennes Tiffin (a nephew of Ralph Fiennes, the series’ Voldemort) and at 16 by Frank Dillane, the lad emits a smooth, brooding dark-star quality that makes you wish there were a parallel group of coming-of-age books about You Know Who–Darth Vader to Harry’s Luke Skywalker. As other boys face the surge of puberty, so Tom and Harry feel a thrill and a shiver at the dawning recognition of their immense powers.

And as Harry and Tom have mirror-image histories, so Harry and Draco (Tom Felton) here become like twins. One is good, one corrupted, but each is bent on avenging his father by annihilating the adult who killed or exiled him. (The story is really about the risks boys take for the grownups whose favor they cherish.) In earlier chapters, Draco was simply the upper-class bully. Now that he’s Voldemort’s chosen one, there’s fear in his sneer. When he nears the man he’s supposed to murder, he blurts out, “I have to kill you, or he’s gonna kill me”–and you can feel sympathy for the devil’s disciple.

With most parents (except for Draco’s mother and the Weasleys) absent from the action, the Hogwarts teachers are the guardians of youth. They’re not all suited to the job; some are foolish, some sinister. The new teacher, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), runs a salon for his pet students. An incorrigible name dropper, he “collects” children whose talent or connections might bring him glory. The resentful Snape (Alan Rickman, effortlessly oily), whose motives have been murky but whom Dumbledore continues to trust, becomes Draco’s surrogate dad: snake for snake.

The deepest kinship, man to boy, is Dumbledore’s with Harry. From the start, when the dean of wizards puts a protective arm around Harry, to the probing trips they take through time and space, Dumbledore is Harry’s true godfather–a role into which the great Gambon pours his craggy majesty and cello voice. One might wish that their visit to Voldemort’s cave had the shuddering poignance it does in the book, where a weakened Dumbledore tells his protégé, “I am not worried, Harry. I am with you.” But their scenes together cast a lingering spell.

In the final films, the boy will grow into the holy warrior. Those climactic works couldn’t have a stronger prelude than Half-Blood Prince–an evocation, not leering but knowing, of adolescence under siege.

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