By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated July 15, 2009 at 12:00 PM EDT
Michael Gambon, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Darkness is visible from the outset of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The Death Eaters mobilized by the return of Lord Voldemort at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix are on the loose in London, streaking through an anxious metropolis on missions of urban destruction that, in a different fantasy cosmos, might challenge the talents of Batman. Thunder rattles a gray sky; the camera alights on a heavyhearted young man reading his newspaper in a sad subway café out of an old Edward Hopper painting while he ogles a pretty waitress out of modern multiracial England. Yet there’s cause for audience spirits to be high: The universally recognizable fellow is Harry Potter, embodied in blossoming manhood by Daniel Radcliffe. The newspaper is The Daily Prophet, that model of innovative print journalism in which every photo not only tells a story, but morphs into a moving picture, too. And it’s abundantly clear that director David Yates, returning to the magical realm after Order of the Phoenix, and indispensable Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves (he’s written all but the Phoenix script) have perfected a crucial potion: They’ve found just the right balance of timeless spiritual profundity and contemporary teen specificity, of awe and humor, necessary to steer J.K. Rowling’s ? enthralling seven-book saga to a satisfying conclusion. Will Hermione (Emma Watson) attract Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint)? Will Ron kiss flouncy, pouncy Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave)? Will Harry connect with Ron’s no-longer-such-a-kid sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright)? And will good triumph over evil? Stick around till Yates and Kloves’ final two-part Potter production, scheduled for 2010 and 2011, and find out.

Even loyal readers who enjoy the gift of clairvoyance may appreciate a reminder or two about the plot of Half-Blood Prince. Just before Harry is set to return to Hogwarts, the star student is recruited by venerable headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) for a mission. The old wizard wants to lure the retired Potions professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent, doing a juicy inside-out version of his role ? in Topsy-Turvy) back to Hogwarts to find out what the vain old goat remembers about a certain former star student named Tom Riddle. (Long story short for Muggles: Riddle became Voldemort.) In the meantime, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is being groomed to do some major evil. And Prof. Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) appears to have Draco’s back — as well as the most delicious ability to. clip. his. words.

All the while, the teenage wizards-in-training have enough to handle just being regular teens under the spell of raging hormones. ”Excuse me, I have to go and vomit,” Hermione announces with a bite worthy of Gossip Girl when she observes Ron getting all snoggy with Lavender, who’s one of the great lovestruck steamrollers of teen literature. And anyone who has survived 12th grade has passed a pale individualist classmate like Evanna Lynch’s Luna Lovegood in the hallway, or encountered an imperious dragon-lady teacher like Maggie Smith‘s Minerva McGonagall.

On the other hand, not many teens face a hero’s quest as daunting as the one set for Harry, with a showdown scheduled for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Half-Blood Prince encompasses important plot developments involving both love and death. But the story is, still and all, only a pause, deferring an intensely anticipated conclusion. And it’s in that exquisite place of action and waiting that this elegantly balanced production emerges as a model adaptation. By now, as played with utmost loyalty to the cause by some of Britain’s most illustrious actors, the supporting characters are as familiar as the population of Homer Simpson’s neighborhood (and that’s a great compliment). Yet with a big assist from cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel — a Potter newbie who memorably shot Amélie and Across the Universe — the filmmakers have found a way to refresh our eyes and enhance our appreciation for this rich, amazing creation. A-

The Movie Critics: EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum and Owen Gleiberman talk pop-culture touchstones in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

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