Wizard of yawns

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Surprise! This one’s a sleeper.

Surprise! This one’s a sleeper.

Rated 2.0

The latest Harry Potter movie suffers from a major—and surprising—miscalculation by writer Steve Kloves and director David Yates. Everyone who has read J.K. Rowling’s novels (and who else is even slightly interested in seeing the movies?) knows that this sixth installment in her epic series ends with very bad news for Harry and good wizards everywhere. The movie’s miscalculation is in how that bad news is allowed to permeate its entire 153-minute running time, so that when the climactic moment finally arrives, it’s a relief more than a shock.

Rowling’s novels are always a challenge for a screenwriter, crammed as they are with plot incidents, Quidditch games and magical filigree. Kloves has written all but one of the scripts (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was adapted by Michael Goldenberg), and he’s done yeoman work so far.

But with Half-Blood Prince, Kloves’ touch falters in the very first scene. Like Rowling’s book, the movie opens with a nod to the complex relationship between the wizarding community and the Muggle (i.e., ordinary) world. But where Rowling opened with a scene between the Muggle prime minister and new Minister for Magic Rufus Scrimgeour discussing recent bizarre and ominous events, Kloves gives us a scene between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and a diner waitress who could have sworn she saw movement in one of the pictures in Harry’s Daily Prophet, and she’ll be off work at 11 if Harry wants to talk about it.

Kloves pares Rowling’s teeming plot down to CliffsNotes simplicity, and in the process he loses much of the novel’s texture. Not only does the conniving Scrimgeour (a major character in the book) never appear, but the entire Ministry of Magic (the scene of the climax of Order of the Phoenix) also is barely mentioned, if at all.

Gone are the Dursleys, Harry’s aunt and uncle, and gone are about half of Harry and Professor Dumbledore’s (Michael Gambon) trips to the Pensieve to explore different memories of young Lord Voldemort (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and Frank Dillane at different ages). Dumbledore and Harry’s first visit to retired Professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) is rearranged in such a way that the scene’s point—how Dumbledore maneuvers the unwitting Harry into persuading Slughorn to return to Hogwarts to teach—is all but lost.

Kloves also muddies the furtive activities of Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) in the Room of Requirement; in this, as in much of the movie, Kloves depends as never before on the viewer having already read the book and being able to fill in the blanks.

Director Yates also assumes that we’ve read the book. But his corollary to that assumption is that we’re already depressed and dispirited by the ending, so he directs the movie as if the terrible development in Rowling’s plot has already happened, as if the stunned and forlorn hopelessness that overwhelms Harry and the rest were already in place.

The teen-romance complications of Harry and Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) and Harry’s pals Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson) survive in Kloves’ script, but Yates drains them of their hormonal urgency. He has his young stars read their lines in a listless deadpan (Wright especially suffers in this respect), belying the life-or-death matter that we all know young love can be. It’s as if he were deliberately tamping down and stifling their youth—“Grow up, kids, we’ve got serious business here!”

This listlessness—every shot held a second too long, every line picked up a beat too late—is of a piece with the look of the movie. Hogwarts is suddenly an oddly stark and ascetic-looking place, the whimsical ghosts and talking portraits gone (in fact, much of the book’s magical garnishment is out; did Warner Bros. put a pound-foolish lid on the effects budget?). Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is washed out and monochromatic; the movie is colorless in every sense of the word. The sluggish pace and bare-bones plot give the movie the aura not of a 652-page book crammed into two-and-a-half hours, but of a 90-minute story dragged out an hour too long.

A boy behind me at the screening I attended put it succinctly: “That was the most boringest movie I ever saw!” I don’t know who he was, but I’ll bet he didn’t say that after he read the book.