Modern English

David Yates, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 153 minutes. Production still.

LET ME COUNT THE WAYS I love the Harry Potter movies, although this new one, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, not quite so much. First, I love the Potter movies because they (the movies, not the books, which are a wee bit overwritten) remind me of growing up enthralled with English childhoods—not British but English childhoods, meaning that no matter how much a character felt like an outsider, she or he had skin as white as Jean Simmons in Great Expectations. (Some examples that come to mind are Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden [1911] and Noel Streatfeild’s Theater Shoes [1944] and Ballet Shoes [1936].) English children always survived terrible loss (usually of one or, like Harry, both parents) by discovering they had a passion for something or other (ballet dancing, auto mechanics, nurturing a sickly friend) and becoming experts in whatever it was, thereby gaining the approval of their enigmatic adult mentors, who would bestow on them the only reward worth having, a hearty “Well done!”

Harry, having earned a great number of well-dones in the preceding five installments, is ready, by the end of HP and the H-BP, to embrace his role as the “Chosen One,” he who alone has the passion and expertise in magic to defeat the Dark Lord, Voldemort, who killed his parents and now casts his shadow over not only Hogwarts Academy but, appropriately, in this last year of the first grim decade of the twenty-first century, the entire world. Harry’s final confrontation with Voldemort will not take place until 2011. (Warner Brothers has chosen to milk every possible dollar out of its most profitable franchise by splitting the last novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, into two movies to be released in the successive summers of 2010 and 2011.) By then, the other Chosen One, he who proudly bears the legacy of the colonized as well as the colonizer, will have put us on the path to full employment, the reversal of global warming, and world peace. Or, at least, so we hope. Which brings me to the second way in which I love the “Harry Potter” movies: They are just boring enough, especially during the overly extended set pieces (Quidditch, anyone?) to give you space and time for your own free associations, most of them provoked by the elemental but timely configurations of the “Potter” narratives and characters themselves.

I don’t love the clumsy special effects in the “Potter” series, although I suspect the opening sequence of this one—the Death Eaters swooping over London like Nazi bombers during the Blitz—is more exciting in IMAX 3-D. (The fifteen minutes of this nearly three-hour-long “Potter” that was shot in IMAX 3-D—as well as in 35-mm 2-D—was unavailable for press preview, probably because Warner Brothers knows how unimportant critics are to the movie’s grosses.) Nor do I have much affection for the production design, although director David Yates uses the vaulted, shadowy corridors of Hogwarts like Laurence Olivier used those of Elsinore in his Hamlet (1948)—to allow his hero to eavesdrop on those plotting against him, thereby goosing the plot with dramatic irony.

David Yates, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 153 minutes. Production still. Professor Severus Snape, Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley, Harry Potter, Professor Minerva McGonagall (Alan Rickman, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe, Maggie Smith).

But mostly I love “Harry Potter” for the actors, although my favorite among them, Gary Oldman, who gave probably the most romantic performance of his career as Sirius Black, was dispatched in part 5. (It may be more than you want to know about me, but for several years a Sirius Black action figure has counted among the fetish objects on the shelf behind my desk.) With Sirius gone, I have displaced some of my admittedly perverse yearnings onto Alan Rickman’s Professor Severus Snape, looking more than ever like a formaldehyde version of John Cale in his Velvet Underground days. Rickman is a genius at allowing conflicting thoughts and impulses to flicker across his face while keeping most of what he’s up to under wraps. He is also the winner of a tough competition with Maggie Smith (as Professor Minerva McGonagall) over who can deliver the most plumy version of dry wit; he bridges the second and third words of a three-word sentence with a full five-second pause. Missing almost entirely is Ralph Fiennes’s Voldemort, presumably resting up before going one-on-one with Harry in the next two movies. In his stead, Helena Bonham Carter, as the totally bonkers eternal goth girl Bellatrix Lestrange, turns up just often enough to add her familiar but still electrifying jolt of evil to the proceedings.

I also love the newcomers: Jim Broadbent, a match for Rickman at playing conflicting impulses, as the literally weak-at-the-knees blowhard Professor Horace Slughorn, and the young actors Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and Frank Dillane, playing the bad seed Tom Riddle at the respective ages of eleven and sixteen, already on his way to becoming Voldemort. With his coterie of adolescent boys, Slughorn suggests another legendary aspect of English public school education, previously missing from the screen. And when, in flashback, Slughorn melts under the velvet gaze of Dillane’s Riddle, even the kiddies will feel that something unspeakably enticing is afoot. I’ll stop now, lest I preempt the penetrating queer critiques sure to come. But it is a sexy, chilling moment.

As for Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, who play our heroes, they’ve been unfairly slagged by critics in high places for doing exactly what they were selected nearly a decade ago to do: grow up to be attractive young adults with excellent facial bones and an ability to move gracefully and with conviction, actors who know better than to project any distinctive personality traits that would interfere with the pictures of the characters that fans of the books have formed in their imaginations. It is not Watson’s fault that screenwriter Steve Kloves hasn’t given her any interesting scenes. Grint’s Ron has some wonderful comedic moments, particularly when he reacts to a love potion as if he were Titania swooning over Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And Radcliffe’s limitation in conveying emotion inadvertently enforces the Obama comparison. Yes, it would be nice to see a bit more passion from him, but what should not be undervalued is his ability to move the movie forward in scene after scene. A hearty “Well done!” to them all.