David Yates’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince doesn’t bother with establishing backstory—at this point, if you’re not a Hogwarts alum, you have no business here in the first place. Which is all well and good, except that for those intimately familiar with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), Ron (Rupert Grint), and the rest of the wizardry gang, there’s no surprise, only obligation, to be found in experiencing the remainder of these big-screen Potter adaptations, of which this sixth is at once rich in character and wispy in narrative. To an extent even greater than Order of the Phoenix, this Potter only takes a baby step forward, its central tale about Draco Malfoy’s (Tom Felton) attempts to assassinate wizened professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) so lean that it soon becomes a background concern, and culminates in a manner that—given the emotional and practical significance of said well-known tragedy—comes off as dispiritingly perfunctory. If only the anticlimactic ordinariness of this finale were a means of highlighting the mundanity of evil. Mostly, though, Yates’s second turn behind the camera never manages to generate the dramatic momentum necessary to create requisite suspense or a sense of import, furthering the impression that this chapter is merely a plot placeholder.
And yet despite this thinness, Half-Blood Prince nonetheless often feels fruitful thanks to diligent concentration on the romantic plights of its three pubescent protagonists. Whereas preadolescent fears (of fitting in, of leaving home, of discovering an unknown adult world) were married to distant Voldemort danger in the early films, this latest yarn equates consuming hormonal desires (both frustrated and realized) with pressing malevolent threats from Voldemort’s cadre of Death Eaters, who at story’s beginning have begun brazenly attacking not only the forces of good but also Muggles themselves. Ash-gray clouds and dark steel-blue hues once again cast an ominous pall over the proceedings, and sights of wondrous magic prove sparse and fleeting, mainly confined to Dumbledore’s sumptuous revitalization of a dilapidated house interior and an ill-fitting visit to the elder Weasley brothers’ gag shop. Now almost completely removed from the ooh-ah-whoa fancifulness of Chris Columbus’s first two installments, Yates’s film has a reserve that suits its somber tone, a mood cast primarily by the thwarted amour of Harry for Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), here mired in an unhappy relationship to a fellow student, and Hermione for Ron, whose Quidditch fame has resulted in copious snogging with a doting admirer.
By throwing its weight behind these lovesick dynamics at the expense of main-storyline progression, Half-Blood Prince comes off as vital in the moment but somewhat more trivial in retrospect, its burning passions lending added depth to characters who—six sagas in—are believably multifaceted, while at the same time serving as distractions from the general go-nowhere status of the action at hand. After much pining and pouting, Harry extracts the crucial secret of new potions professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), thus propelling him and Dumbledore on a mission to a crystal cave where black liquid must be drunk and ghoulish dead monsters must be avoided. In this, the film’s most vigorous sequence, and again during Harry’s later would-be showdown with Snape (Alan Rickman, letting each word ooze out of his mouth like puss from a wound), Yates crafts indelible widescreen panoramas of defiant youth under siege. Still, wand-waving combat is the least magical element of this Potter, which derives its potency primarily from the squinting, puffed-up performance of an excellent Broadbent, mature turns from its three increasingly capable stars, and a recognition that, for teens, having to face dawning apocalyptic warfare is no more harrowing than attempting to understand—and woo—the opposite sex.