'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince'
The Potter films have come a long way since 2001, when Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron) and Emma Watson (Hermione) were new to the wizardry game. The first two pictures, directed by Chris Columbus, were the result of clear corporate directives: Do not alienate the book's fan base. Do not scare the American audience with too much Englishness. Do not muck about with style. Do not leave profitability to chance. (Columbus was chosen in large part because his resume boasted the highest-grossing kid-aimed blockbusters, chiefly "Home Alone.")
With the first two out of the way, the series became more interesting and less determined in its blockbusterism. David Yates directed the entertaining if somewhat harried fifth Potter film, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." He returned for "Half- Blood Prince" (he's shooting the final two as well) and it marks a step forward in every way; it breathes easily, and tells its chapter in Harry's ongoing story with mellow authority.
As the concerns of novelist Rowling's characters gravitate increasingly toward matters of the heart and the hormones, the Potter films are leaving childhood behind. Yet the friendship of the central trio remains the key to the magic. The peril, the digital effects and the omnipresent, elegantly realized dread wouldn't mean anything if we didn't like these three. Early on in "Half-Blood Prince" Radcliffe, Watson and Grint find themselves back on the Hogwarts Express, chugging toward another school year, and the way these young actors share the scene---and the way Yates films it, in medium shot, capturing their easygoing interaction---you realize audience familiarity, in this case, breeds nothing but contentment.
Adapted by series regular Steve Kloves, "Half-Blood Prince" finds Voldemort off-screen but his Death Eater minions all over the place, destroying a London bridge in the opening sequence and posing an ongoing threat to Harry, "the Chosen One." Fame, the burden of being special, weighs heavily on Harry. Dumbledore ( Michael Gambon) enlists his favorite student to extract a long-buried secret relating to Voldemort's early days---the Tom Riddle period---from the former Hogwarts potions professor ( Jim Broadbent, wonderfully addled), now back in the classroom. Meantime Draco Malfoy, with his advanced degree in skulking, is being prepped for vengeance on Voldemort's behalf. Tom Felton returns as Malfoy, and he has suddenly turned into an menacing, lanky boy-man, resembling a dark-magic cross between Jonathan Pryce and film director David Lynch.
Along with supernatural concerns, natural ones take up a good deal of screen time in "Half-Blood Prince." Harry's interested in Ron's sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright); Hermione has a thinly disguised crush on Ron; Ron, ambivalently, is perpetually getting backed into hallway corners by Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave, moony intensity personified). As before, fully half of the best actors in England fill out the supporting roles, with top honors going this time to Broadbent. Also, with the true nature of Severus Snape figuring prominently here, it's very good news indeed that the peerless Alan Rickman has been working overtime on his insidious pregnant pauses.
There's a new cinematographer on board, Bruno Delbonnel ("A Very Long Engagement"), and the stark color palette suits the gathering storm clouds beautifully. In a similar vein, composer Nicholas Hooper provides little of the jolly menace of the early John Williams Potter scores. There are heavy matters here, including the death of another major character. Yet even when its rhythm slackens in the final half-hour the film never buckles under the weight of its solemnity. I came at "Half-Blood Prince" without having read the novel first; what's missing (or, in the case of at least one character, waylaid until the next Potter film) I will leave to others to discuss. Would it play with an audience made up of folks entirely new to Rowling's world? Probably not. Did it work for someone who'd seen the previous Potter films, albeit out of order? It certainly did in my case. The Potter series has sustained itself because it no longer seems to be concerned about roping in the widest possible global audience. Instead, it's trying to treat Rowling's characters with the care and class they deserve, and in spellbinding sequences such as the "liquid memory" flashback to Tom Riddle's childhood---in which Ralph Fiennes' nephew, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, plays the Dark Lord in training---Yates proves he's the man for the job in cinematic terms, not merely transcriptive ones.