With a more self-assured David Yates back at the helm and screenwriter Steve Kloves returning from his one picture break, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" brings our Hogwarts ensemble into their teenage years with a film that is quieter, more confident, infinitely more mature and, most surprising of all, immensely emotionally satisfying.
What began as a rather playful and mystical cinematic journey through the fantastical imaginings of a child's mind has become, lo and behold, a darker, grittier and more richly realized fantasy in which innocent flirtations, sporting games of Quidditch and life-or-death battles are co-exist in the lives of our young wizards to be.
The lines between right and wrong are coming clearly into focus as our evildoers reveal themselves as destructive racists hellbent on creating for the Dark Lord the absolute perfect storm of villainy. Those who've read the books or spent even a spare moment reading about Harry Potter in the media know where we are headed. There will be a showdown between good and evil and, yes, we will come face-to-face with Voldemort's desired comeback. In this chapter, Harry's Hogwarts nemesis Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) becomes increasingly influenced by the darker powers, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) shows his true self and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) plays the gothic cheerleader on the sidelines determined to ensure the return of Voldemort.
In the meantime, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) along with his pals for eternity, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), are doing battle with an even more powerful force...teenage hormones. Indeed, snogging comes to the front and center of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" and we experience our young teens dating, kissing, getting jealous and falling madly in love, sometimes thanks to a particularly powerful love potion.
It is in these very real human relationships that "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" accomplishes something that the award-winning "Lord of the Rings" trilogy never could accomplish- a sense of humanity. While the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was arguably more epic in nature and awesome in technology, it never became a film a film that mattered from a human perspective and, save for a few diehard "Lord of the Rings" fans, the films faded into a distant memory and your local video store clearance aisle. The "Harry Potter" films, on the other hand, have progressed in just the opposite manner. THESE young people, Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny and the entire lot, have become firmly transfixed as a rather joyous and comfortable part of our lives. We enjoy the journey, are invested in their personal outcomes, care about their well-being and shutter at the thought of there being a mere one more book and two more films in our relationship with them.
In this film, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," it unfolds more powerfully than ever that these young lads and ladies are simply a joy to be around.
Furthermore, the leading trio has developed from awkward child performers suddenly in one of the world's biggest film series to rather surprisingly talented young actors likely to have quite the future ahead of them once the saga of Harry Potter comes to a cinematic close.
Daniel Radcliffe, who has revealed himself more than once recently as a bold and creative actor, is completely mesmerizing as the maturing Harry. Radcliffe is required to portray a rather dizzying blend of childhood innocence and maturing action star with his inward knowledge of being "the chosen one.' It has become easy to picture Radcliffe one day joining alongside a film such as this one taking his place beside other British cinematic greats such as those in this film.
While we've always seen touches of brilliance in Radcliffe's work, the most surprising growth comes in the performances of Rupert Grint and Emma Watson.
Here, Grint possesses a greater cinematic personality than seen in previous films and a wider range of humor, vulnerability, bravado and heart. Likewise, Emma Watson, despite being far from the plain jane she started out to be, manages to maintain an everygirl sensibility about herself that keeps her utterly charming. Her looks of longing as Ron's affections are won by the slightly psychotic Lavender Brown (Jessie Caves) are completely heartbreaking in that teenage broken heart sort of way.
As has become the tradition in the Harry Potter films, the greats of British cinema return on the faculty of Hogwarts including Michael Gambon's Dumbledore, Maggie Smith's Professor Minerva McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane's Hagrid, Warwick Davis's Professor Filius Flitwick and, of course, Alan Rickman's Professor Severus Snape. As has also become the Harry Potter custom, a new or returning Brit shows up and here we get Jim Broadbent as Professor Horace Slughorn, whom Harry and Dumbledore woo back as Professor of Potions in hopes of learning about a secret memory that may be the key to stopping the return of Dumbledore.
It should come as no surprise that the entire supporting cast again dazzles and, again achieving a level of emotional resonance that "Lord of the Rings" could not, it is devastating to watch the fate of Dumbledore unfold even as the vast majority in the audience are fully aware of what is to come. Gambon so completely brought the otherworldly wizard to life that it is impossible to not sit with eyes transfixed to the screen as it all unfolds. In addition, Rickman again dazzles as the professor whose darkness is slowly being realized while Evanna Lynch is an absolute delight as the quirky Luna Lovegood. Bonnie Wright also shines as Ginny, for whom the chemistry with Harry grows ever more obvious.
Rather expectedly, tech credits for "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" are stellar across the board with special kudos for newcomers Bruno Delbonnel as Director of Photography and Nicholas Hooper's original score.
There are likely to be a few detractors for this sixth film in the series, mostly those who prefer action over human drama and, yes, those who would prefer the film return to the PG-13 rating of its last two films. Somewhat surprisingly, despite being rated only PG like the first three films, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" feels significantly more mature and, at times, even more disturbing than the last two films.
Among minor quibbles, the film's 153-minute running time feels just a touch long, however, this could equally be due to the fact that the film meanders just a bit and has fewer action sequences to distract moviegoers from the meandering. Similarly, on at least a couple of occasions, scenes felt a bit awkwardly edited as if they weren't entirely played out. These minor quibbles aside, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" is easily the most satisfying sensory and emotional experience yet in the series mostly owing to the cast's magnificently increased cohesiveness and a far more assured directing style from David Yates.
What began as a rather slight yet charming enough film series about a group of misfits trying to make their way in a magical world has turned into an immensely satisfying fantasy for children and adults with very real human dramas that people of all ages can identify with and understand. Awesome to behold and inspiring to experience, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" blends reality and fantasy into one of this summer's most satisfying cinematic experiences.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic