When Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince got pulled from last autumn’s cinema schedule, fans of the teenage wizard feared it portended the loss of his screen magic.
Fear not! The new movie casts a potent spell. However, given that we’ve now reached the penultimate book in JK Rowling’s globe-conquering saga, it’s not a spell that will work on anyone who isn’t already a die-hard Potter aficionado.
If you’re unfamiliar with Rowling’s world of wizards and Muggles, Hogwarts, Quidditch and Death Eaters, this really isn’t the place to start getting up to speed. The sixth Harry Potter movie unapologetically picks up the story where the last screen instalment left off… and leaves the saga dangling when it ends.
For those of you in need of a plot refresher, however, here’s a brief recap. Harry’s nemesis Lord Voldemort has returned and his followers, the Death Eaters, are gaining strength, zapping all and sundry with their dark magic. Anxious to prepare Harry for the coming showdown with the forces of evil, Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore seeks to uncover crucial information about Voldemort’s past, specifically his childhood as schoolboy Tom Riddle. To this end, he recruits Harry to winkle a key memory from the mind of returning potions professor Horace Slughorn, who taught the teenage Riddle at Hogwarts.
Yes, the plot really does thicken, but comic relief of sorts comes from the romantic confusion of Harry’s friends Ron and Hermione, whose growing mutual attraction gets messy thanks to Ron’s fling with an adoring fellow pupil.
The overall mood, though, is very dark. Director David Yates, back at the helm after 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, opts for a sombre colour palette largely comprising washed-out blues, sulphurous yellows and ashen greys. With Voldemort’s evil becoming ever more pervasive, hope and vitality appear to be draining away from the world.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince looks fabulous, all the same, and the special effects are getting better and better. So is the acting. Daniel Radcliffe is maturing as an actor – his time on stage in Equus in London and New York has evidently paid off – and co-stars Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are growing up too. More predictably, the cast’s old hands, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, et al, plus newbie Jim Broadbent, are all on enchanting form.
Some Rowling fans will be irked by screenwriter Steve Klove’s tinkering with the plot – though how he conjured a 768-page novel into a 153-minute film is beyond me. But it’s Yates and his technical team who are the film’s true magicians, taking the viewer’s breath away again and again with their cinematic craft, illusionistic skill and, sorry, no other words will do, spellbinding wizardry.