From Bambi’s mother’s death to the destruction of Alderaan, every modern generation is cursed and blessed with its very own big-screen traumas. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” the sixth film in the series based on J.K. Rowling’s fantasy novels, contains a doozy; that millions of readers know it’s coming won’t dim its power in the least. Screenwriter Steve Kloves, director David Yates and the familiar, still-sturdy cast play the grim moment and its aftermath for incredulous shock rather than raw sentiment, knowing viewers will supply the latter in spades.
As devotees know, this entry finds Hogwarts in a funk, its faculty and students still reeling from the death of Harry’s godfather and the “I am your father, Luke”-level revelation that the hero is, in fact, The Chosen One. Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) interrupts Harry’s holiday-among-the-common folks (even wand-blocking his flirtation with a star-struck coffee shop waitress) to whisk him across England and introduce him to a soon-to-be faculty member, potions professor Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent, a master of scatterbrained enthusiasm and matter-of-fact venality who gives both modes a workout here). Slughorn once mentored a student named Tom Riddle, who would one day evolve into the dreaded Voldemort; then he tinkered with his (and the school’s) memories of that time, depriving our heroes of opposition research required to vanquish evil.
Dumbledore aims to place Harry under Slughorn’s wing — a double-agent scenario. Harry is game even though the plan’s a lot to ask of anybody, especially a depressive, hormone-addled teenager. The hero’s peers are as dazed and confused as he is; as the central plot unfurls through the movie like an immense, poisonous snake, revealed tail-first, the filmmakers set up and pay off secondary stories: the love troubles of Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), the jealous scheming of Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton, who increasingly looks like he could be David Hemmings’ long-lost rotter of a son). Understandably, some characters get short shrift. Evanna Lynch’s kooky Luna Lovegood, who stole all her scenes in the last movie, gets only a couple of choice moments in this one, and I would have liked to have seen more from Alan Rickman’s Snape, who’s as cranky and droll as he is malignant and tortured. (Savor how this great actor delivers the simple line, “You just….know.” You could bake a pie in that ellipsis!)
But thanks to Kloves’ and Yates’ knack for compression and their frequently deft cross-cutting, this dense and deliberately slow film never feels overstuffed, and it never settles for being a parade of lavish bits. It coheres and hardens as it goes along; it’s a popcorn fugue. The remarkable opening image — the most unexpected creative choice in the movie — is a slow-motion shot of Harry facing an emblematic, expectant crowd, trying not to flinch against a volley of Scorsese-style assaultive flashbulbs. The remainder of “The Half-Blood Prince” never rises to that glorious, near-pulp level. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (“A Very Long Engagement”) favors muted colors, borderline-Rembrandt lighting and extremely shallow planes of focus (a faddish choice that sometimes seems cell-phone-commercial slick rather than dramatically defensible; I’m not convinced, for instance, that close-ups of important documents should be photographed with most of their words blurred out).
But the movie never quite falters, either; it settles into an appropriately gloomy vibe early, then sinks deeper and deeper into it. The heroes are so spiritually battered that they struggle to muster the energy necessary to carry on a simple conversation; in circumstances this dire, every exchange, no matter how fleeting, requires heroic concentration. Like “The Order of the Phoenix,” only more so, this one strives for gravitas, aiming to be “The Godfather” with wands and broomsticks. Muted conversations unfold slowly, with foggy line deliveries and tactically vague expressions intended to misdirect the viewer or conceal true motives — the better to put us in the position of Harry and his allies, goodhearted characters so exhausted by treachery that they don’t know what to believe or whom to trust. “The Half-Blood Prince” isn’t a note-perfect, deep-shallow blockbuster like “The Prisoner of Azkaban” or “The Order of the Phoenix” (both of which struck me as the only entries in the franchise that could succeed as movies on their own terms, without the viewer having seen the other films or read the novels). But it’s the most wrenching of the six films — the stuff nightmares are made of.