Don't let the PG rating fool you: The dark arts are back with a vengeance in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the generally grim, occasionally startling and altogether enthralling sixth chapter in a movie franchise that keeps managing to surprise just when one would expect it to be puttering along on auto-broomstick. Going a few shades blacker than 2007's already funereal Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, this penultimate Potter picture includes the firebombing of a series regular's home, an episode of demonic possession that wouldn't look out of place in an Exorcist movie and multiple attempts on the life of Harry himself. The greater threat, however, is those unseen forces that compete for the hearts and minds of impressionable boy wizards.
You can credit Potter creator J.K. Rowling with some of the darkening mood, but also director David Yates, the British TV veteran and feature-film neophyte who brought a nightmarish jolt to Order of the Phoenix, effectively clearing out the cobwebs accrued two years earlier by Mike Newell's stolid Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Yates, who returns to the director's chair for Half-Blood Prince, may not be as lyrical a film artist as Alfonso Cuarón (whose Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban remains the gold standard), but he's a bracing stylist in his own right, whose gritty, tactile images seem of a piece with the story's descent into what Joseph Campbell termed "the belly of the whale." By the end of Phoenix, Harry had once more narrowly escaped the clutches of the resurrected Lord Voldemort, witnessed the demise of his last living relative and beheld a prophecy that says when it comes to Harry and the Dark Lord, only one can survive. And, as the story resumes, death is once again rapping on young Mr. Potter's door.
Whereas the previous Potter was structured as a coming-of-age story (with a pointed subtext about the benefits of real experience over book learning), here we get a double-barreled detective story, with the venerable Hogwarts headmaster, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), searching for clues to Voldemort's apparent invincibility, while Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) ferrets out an assassin lurking among the student body. Mostly, though, the film concerns itself with matters of destiny and the origins of evil. Like many a mythical arch villain, Voldemort was (we learn in flashback) once a boy, too, plucked by Dumbledore from a Dickensian orphanage and enrolled in Hogwarts, where he quickly rose to the head of the class, until the tree of wizardly knowledge tempted him with its forbidden fruit. Now, a present-day Hogwarts student may be preparing to follow in the Dark Lord's footsteps.
The movie isn't all gloom and doom, mind you: After the mercifully quidditch-free Phoenix, the sport of choice for Hogwarts athletes is back. So, for that matter, are the adolescent hormonal stirrings (first seen around the time of Goblet of Fire) that wreak havoc on long-time BFFs Ron (the ever-ganglier Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) and periodically turn Half-Blood Prince into something closer to Fast Times at Hogwarts High. There's an expanded role this time for Harry's moon-child classmate Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch, who has the dingbat charm of the young Carol Kane). And, lest he be the one UK character actor of his generation not already gainfully employed by the Potter factory, Jim Broadbent joins the cast as potions teacher Horace Slughorn, a former Hogwarts professor lured by Dumbledore back into the fold.
With his quivering voice and fusty, absentminded charm, Slughorn is the sort of teacher we've all had at one time or another — an avuncular, unapologetically old-fashioned bachelor or widower who endears himself to his students by treating them as equals rather than peons, and who, in turn, validates himself through his students' successes. He "collects" people, Dumbledore advises Harry — literally, in the case of the photos of famous ex-pupils adorning his mantel. But Slughorn also carries a deep, private shame, and Broadbent, who plays the part quite brilliantly, lets it infect the character's entire physicality, from his slightly stooped posture to his skittishness around those who ask too many questions. Perhaps it goes without saying that a photo of Slughorn's most famous former student is conspicuously missing from that gilded shrine, and the closer Harry gets to discovering why, the more he finds in his newest teacher a fellow tragic, tortured soul. Unpleasant memories have always weighed heavy on the denizens of Potter land, but who knew they could be stored in medicinal vials and re-experienced at will — the magic world's equivalent of Proust's Madeleine?
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince won't make converts out of those who can't tell a Thestral from a Dementor, and the series as a whole lacks the enveloping, full-scale mythos of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But I'd be lying if I didn't say this movie gave me as much innocent pleasure as any I've seen this year — the pleasure of a ripping good yarn well told; the pleasure of the Radcliffe/Grint/Watson ensemble, who by now have the relaxed back-and-forth of the leads in the original Star Trek series; and the pleasure of knowing that, in these troubled times for magic people and Muggles alike, brave, selfless Harry is there to remind us of our best selves. So I, for one, eagerly await the upcoming, two-part series finale, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, whose title alone suggests it will still be awhile before gray skies clear up for our intrepid hero. Yet, curiously, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince closes on the incongruous image of sunlight poking through parted clouds, burnishing Hogwarts in a radiant autumnal glow. Surveying the landscape, Harry comments on its beauty, even as he realizes that his supreme ordeal still lies before him, and that it is sometimes dawn just before the darkest.