But beyond our five-film investment, we still need reasons to stay tuned, and director David Yates offers up just enough. Beyond the moody sets, quality camera work and a chest-thumping Quidditch match, the masterstroke casting is plenty. Watching a Potter installment now is nearly like checking in on the British Up documentary series. Radcliff has graduated from shorthand for dweeb to a broadnecked and serious hero, with the quiet suffering and pectorals to match. The British tabloids rightly have a 2D fascination with Emma Watson’s gradual bloom into a graceful gamine. Rupert Grint’s Ron looks the same as ever and that’s just how we like him. The most casually affecting moments come when the gang strides down the halls of Hogwarts past first-year wizards who barely reach their elbow. Were they really ever that small? None can yet legally toast a beer at the U.S. premiere, but we’ve already watched them grow up in an endless series of semi-interesting blockbusters.
New to the cast this go-around is a hilarious ingénue (Jessie Cave) gone gonzo over Ron and Potions professor Horace Slughorn (the excellent Jim Broadbent), a name-dropper important because he once was the confident of a star pupil named Tom Riddle (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and the slightly older model Frank Dillane, both chilling proto-killers). There’s less of a plot than usual in installment six. Typically, there’s a grand theme uniting the school year—Order of Phoenix’s kittenish fascism, my favorite so far. But this is more of a riff. Secret crushes exchange secret glares; Harry struggles to convince everyone that Draco (Tom Felton) and Snape (Alan Rickman) are up to evil. (Though perhaps in deference to the fact that after five school years of being doubted than proven right, his insistence is listless.) It’s a megafilm killing time before the next sequel. More of the filler could be allocated to Draco and Snape, whose characters are fascinating unknowns suffering near-invisibly in the shadows as Harry moons over Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright, shy and strong). Yet the last 20 minutes are stunning. For 12 percent of the running time, even those who plonk down in their seats protected by an already-spoiled ending are shattered. And just as simply as that, we’re hooked until 2011.