Is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the best Harry Potter film
yet? Oh yes. Is it one of the best films of the year? Oh yes again.

And I don’t just say that through the fog of my well-known Potter
fanboyism. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a remarkable
achievement, a film that is moving, that is funny, that is honest and
true and sad and sweet. It’s a movie about characters who we have come
to know and love, and it’s a movie that understands that it’s these
characters, and not the magic they perform, that is the real hook of
the series. And it’s a film that is just crowded with beautiful vistas
and marvelous effects and that has some of the best performances yet
for this series.

And it has Jim Broadbent. Could a Harry Potter film make a showing at
the Oscars in a non-technical category? If Warner Bros plays their
cards right I believe that they could easily wrangle a nod for
Broadbent, who plays new Potions teacher Horace Slughorn. While
Slughorn, a retired teacher who Dumbledore needs back at Hogwarts as he
holds a vital clue to defeating the resurrected Voldemort, was never a
favorite of mine in print, Broadbent takes the role and does
unbelievable things with it. He plays a level of buffoonery that’s
hilarious – we’re introduced to Slughorn when he’s morphed himself into
a recliner – but the actor also manages to bring a level of sadness
that is palpable and affecting. Slughorn ‘collects’ students; his
self-image comes from being the mentor to witches and wizards who went
on to do great things. In a momentary lapse of judgment he helped young
Tom Riddle, the boy who would grow up to be Voldemort, find the key to
a kind of immortality. Broadbent keeps the sadness and shame and regret
just under the surface, and when he fully brings it out he doesn’t
overdo things. The performance is a thing of beauty.

As is the rest of the film. I wasn’t fully sold on Harry Potter and the
Order of the Phoenix
, which marked David Yates’ introduction to the
series. When it’s all wrapped up Yates will have directed more Potter
films than any one else, as he is also doing the two-part adaptation of
Deathly Hallows. I had trepidation about him doing four films; Phoenix was, for me, the most
rushed Potter film, one where everything felt squished and nothing had
a chance to breathe. Any complaint I had, though, have disappeared
completely with Half-Blood Prince. Yates now has my full and undivided
allegiance, and if the quality of this film is in any way indicative of
what he’ll do with Deathly Hallows, it seems obvious that Yates will be
the director most associated with the Harry Potter films, as he’ll have
made the best ones.

If you’re not onboard with the Potter films don’t even think of jumping
aboard with this one. While Half-Blood Prince is so good that I think
it would charm even the most jaded Potter non-believer, the film makes
no bones about being the sixth in a series. Characters, locations and
creatures show up without any sort of intro or memory-jogging namedrop.
In fact some characters never even have their names or functions spoken
in the film, and even for someone like me, who has read all the books
and seen all the movies and actually knows a spell or two, things could
get daunting. But it’s a testament to Yates and screenwriter Steve
Kloves that the continuity never gets in the way of the storytelling,
which moves forward vigorously, while also making sure to take time and
concentrate on the characters.

Yates’ visual style has evolved in a massive way since the last film.
His Hogwarts is now less about magical moving paintings and stairways
that move and more about long corridors and dark passages; these
passages reflect the journeys the characters make on their way through
puberty. He uses the geography of the school in ways that advance the
characters while also making stunning shots – the camera pulls out of a
parapet window where Hermione cries and flies up, peeking in a window
where Ron kisses a girl and then continues all the way to the top,
where Draco Malfoy stands alone, fuming. It looks beautiful and it
succinctly encapsulates everything you need to know about these
characters at this moment. Yates also really understands how to
integrate magic visually into his film; there’s a matter-of-fact
quality to it here that never diminishes the joy of the magic but also
never makes it the centerpiece.

Early test screenings yielded complaints that the whole movie focused
on romance and that the action was backgrounded. These complaints are,
amazingly, right and wrong at the same time. Yes, the focus on the film
is about the romances between the characters, but these romances don’t
happen in a vacuum. Outside of Hogwarts things are getting dark, as
Death Eaters have begun waging terrorist war not just on the magical
world but the Muggle one as well. Things are looking downright
apocalyptic, but the film knows that ill-fated romance can seem just as
apocalyptic when you’re 15. In many ways this film reminded me of the
better seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the interpersonal
dynamics reflect the larger, mythological stakes.

But even beyond that, Half-Blood Prince is and always was about how the
larger forces affect us as individuals and how we as individuals affect
the larger forces. The entire story is essentially a struggle for the
soul of Draco Malfoy, the bullying bastard whose father, played by
Jason Isaacs in previous films, was recently sent away to Azkaban
prison for being a Death Eater. Draco is given a mission by Lord
Voldemort himself, and it’s one that could completely destroy him as a
human being. This is what I love about this story and what I love about
the way the movie adapts it: the meta-battle between Voldemort and
Dumbledore over the soul of Malfoy is a version of the battle the two
have been playing out for the whole series.

While some of the action has been cut, including the final assault on
Hogwarts, the threat feels more present and stronger than ever. A scene
where Death Eaters attack the Burrow, home of the Weasley clan, is
exciting and scary and carries a whallop of an impact. The film focuses
on these characters but it never forgets that they’re living life in
wartime, and that there are larger, darker forces massing just beyond
the walls of the school. In fact, Half-Blood Prince feels like the most
grown-up Potter film yet when it comes to the menace of the bad guys.
They’re everywhere, and they’re casually evil. While the death of
Cedric Diggory in Goblet of Fire was a stunner, Half-Blood Prince
carries a constant presence of malice, and it feels like any kid could
be killed at any moment.

More than that, there’s an edging on grown-up sexuality at play. These
kids are deep in puberty, and all they want to do is kiss and touch
each other. It’s to the massive credit of Yates and Kloves that the
teen sexuality comes across as neither puritanical or crass. There’s a
sweetness here, the sweetness of the first kiss and the inarticulate
aching for something more. But Yates and Kloves (and Rowling, of
course) don’t see this through the fog of nostalgia. They fully
understand the pain that goes along with this exciting and confusing
part of life.

It’s a thrill to watch this with the original cast still in place. It’s
easy to forget that there were rumors that the three main kids
would be recast after the initial few films; doing so would have robbed
the series of its power, power which really pays off in Harry Potter
and the Half-Blood Prince
. In a scene where Hermione, heartbroken that
Ron has chosen to run off and snog some other girl, sits weeping in a
stairwell our hearts are broken too. It’s not just because the
character’s journey is one we have enjoyed or that Emma Watson has
blossomed into a fine young actress; it’s because we were there when
she was a little girl – Hermione and Watson – and we’ve
watched her
grow up before our very eyes. Now, having spent eight years and 12 or
so hours with these kids we feel protective of them, and we share in
their pain and in their victories in ways that wouldn’t have been
possible without this sense of massive continuity. We’ve been through
the wringer with Harry, and with Radcliffe as Harry. We’ve seen Ron and
Rupert Grint both grow into themselves, and it lends Ron’s Quidditch
success much more depth.

And while we haven’t quite seen the older actors growing as much
(although a number of them look quite older than when we all began),
their presence has also established a continuity of this world that
makes it all cohere. Some of these actors return for roles that are
cameos – Drew McWeeny noted to me after our screening that Timothy
Spall’s entire role is to open a door! – but they seem to be having a
great time with them. Even the shortest turns are burning with energy,
and some of them carry plenty of meaning. Watching David Thewlis and
Natalie Tena sharing a few moments as Lupin and Tonks means much more
knowing what will come next for them.

Then there are the main elder roles. It seems impossible to think that
Richard Harris could have brought to these latest chapters the spry
humanity that Michael Gambon comes by so easily. There was always
something more otherworldly about Harris’ Dumbledore, but Gambon’s is
identifiably down to earth and even action-oriented in this film. Alan
Rickman luxuriates in the role of Severus Snape, and you can almost
feel him breathing a sigh of relief at once again having something to
do in this series beyond staring down Harry Potter in a couple of
scenes. And as I mentioned at the top: Jim Broadbent, Oscar nominee (in
a fair world).

It’s amazing to watch the sixth film in a series and feel like it’s the
best one yet. It’s incredible that this series hasn’t given in to
fatigue, and if Yates can stick half the landing that Rowling did in
the novel of Deathly Hallows, the Harry Potter series will go down in
history as one of the, if not the greatest longform movie series ever.

This is one of those reviews where I know I could go on for thousand
more words. I know that I could keep talking about the beautiful,
subtle effects or the gorgeous camerawork of Amelie DP Bruno Delbonnel,
or the unbeholden to John Williams score of Nicholas Hooper or the
continuing evolution of the acting of Daniel Radcliffe (who gets to be
legitimately funny in this movie in ways that feel like a huge relief
from his previous few emo Potter turns) or any of the other thousand
things that make Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the high water
mark of this series and that make it one of the high water marks for
summer blockbusters and family films and fantasy films. I could go on
and on, but I’ll just stop here and say that you must see this movie
and that I hope you fall as madly in love with its near perfection as I

9.5 out of 10