Seems fitting that I should publish this review on the day before I'm going to go see the new Chris Columbus film. I know people love to beat up on Chris for the first few films in the series, and the second one in particular, but I'm going to point out that Columbus was the one who found these kids in the first place, and based on the work they do in this new movie, he's looking more and more like a genius for the decisions he made almost a decade ago.
I'm going to write this review as if there's little of substance that I'd be able to spoil for you, since this is a book that's been out there for a while. If you're one of those people who has only been watching the films, then I'll warn you before I drop any big plot points. Because I'd read the books, I realized from the moment the film began that director David Yates is working from a whole new level of confidence this time out. The movie begins with the Warner Bros shield, and then we find ourselves in the Ministry of Magic at the end of the last movie. Harry's still got blood on him, and as people push in to ask questions and the Daily Prophet starts snapping photos, everything slows down. Harry looks lost. Upset. And just before he's overwhelmed by it all, Dumbledore steps close to him, puts one arm around him, and pulls him close to protect him. That one gesture says everything you need to know thematically about this film, and from there, we cut to the main title, and I knew... just knew... that Yates was going to nail this film.
And he did. This is absolutely the best of the "Harry Potter" films so far.
That may sound like faint praise, but it's not. Even removed from the sliding scale of this particular series, "Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince" is a remarkable fantasy adventure, dense and serious and adult, and it serves as a fascinating benchmark for just how far this series has come since 2001. I've always liked the ambition more than the execution, but now, finally, it feels to me like we're seeing the full potential of the series realized, and the result is somewhat breathtaking.
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What Yates brings to the series is an affinity with the actors that allows them to all do the best work they've done so far, and in particular, he manages to elicit work from the young cast that suggests they all have careers after these films are finished if they want. Daniel Radcliffe is, to put it kindly, somewhat limited in range, but Yates creates such a great comfortable environment for Radcliffe that the young actor loosens up here and delivers his loosest, most natural work ever. The same is true of Rupert Grint, who has always served as comic relief among the key "Potter" characters, and who comes very close to walking away as MVP of this film. He's grown into a very confident young comic performer, and in scene after scene, he finds the exact right pitch at which to play Ron Weasley. The third part of the main trio is, of course, Emma Watson as Hermione Granger, and she's quite affecting here. There's one scene in particular where I unexpectedly found myself moved nearly to tears by Watson's work, and I think it's because the vulnerability she shows in the scene reminded me that these young people are in that shadowy zone between children and adults, where everything's cranked up and more important and oh-so-deeply felt, and she made that seem real. Bonnie Wright has grown into her role as Ginny Weasley nicely, and there's a lovely adult grace about her now that makes her budding relationship with Harry make sense. She may be younger, but these kids have lived through extraordinary circumstances, and they wear those scars with dignity. Tom Felton's had a tough path in the series, playing Draco Malfoy, who started as a sort of stock creep, a baby-faced Jimmy Stewart with a haughty sneer. At this point, though, Malfoy's grown up twisted, and he embraces a terrible assignment here, convinced he's finally found a way to prove himself to be a better magician than Harry Potter, and possibly even better than his own father. Felton reveals real layers to Malfoy's malice, though, and he and Radcliffe share a number of scenes that illuminate how far they've come as performers. In a strange way, these films have become the giant blockbuster equivalent of Michael Apted's "7 Up" series in England, a chance to watch a wide range of English schoolkids move from childhood to adulthood as we watch, checking in every so often to see how much they've changed as well as how much they've stayed the same. It's a somewhat remarkable accomplishment for a giant corporate franchise, and what's happened as a result is this product, this calculated commercial material, has ended up with a soul that is uncommon in films of this size, and it actually seems to be growing as the series nears the end instead of fizzling out.
The adult cast is equally impressive, and you've got to be dazzled on some level by any film franchise that can attract a who's who of English stage and TV actors as impressive as the roster that "Harry Potter" can boast. The main new addition this time is Jim Broadbent, and he's absolutely amazing. I've said for years that everything's better with Broadbent. I've always loved this sad-eyed rubber-faced actor, and in the role of Horace Slughorn, he's found a perfect use of his particular talents. There are moments in the film where he's uproariously funny, including his introduction disguised as an armchair, but Slughorn's got some dark secrets tucked away, and when Broadbent turns those big watery eyes on Harry, ashamed of himself, it's shattering. If this were any movie but part six of a series, I'd say Broadbent does "Best Supporting Actor" level work here. It's a master class in how to make the most of every moment onscreen without ever once overpowering the film around him. The same could be said for Alan Rickman, whose Snape has always been one of the consistent treats of the series, and here, as always, he seems to savor each pause in each line of dialogue like ice cubes in a desert. He can say more with a stone-faced look than some actors can say with whole pages of dialogue. Maggie Smith and Julie Walters and David Thewlis all show up for a few scenes, and they all ground the world in a somber reality, reminding us that the stakes have gotten higher and higher over the course of the series so far.
If there is someone who walks away with the film, though, it's not Broadbent as I thought immediately after the screening. No... it's Michael Gambon. I know when the switch was made after Richard Harris passed away, many people thought Gambon was a poor trade. Balderdash. Gambon has absolutely become Dumbledore at this point, and I can't picture anyone else playing the scenes he has with Radcliffe in this film. If you know the ending of the movie, you'll feel it building to that point. Gambon is constantly testing these kids, especially Harry, seeing if he really is as strong as he believes, and when the moments come where Harry has to show real strength, Dumbledore is confident he'll deliver. There's a scene near the end of the film, where Dumbledore and Harry are chasing an artifact relating to Voldemort, and Dumbledore asks Harry to do something horrible. In the book, it seemed like a tough choice, but seeing it come to life, seeing Harry have to follow through, it's positively wrenching. This isn't a choice Harry could have made one film ago or two films ago. The real quiet genius of what Jo Rowling wrote is that each book represents a different step on the path to growing up, and this is the moment where you have to let authority fall away as you step up and make your own way in the world. Harry has leaned on Dumbledore for so much over the years, even when he didn't know he was doing it, that the idea of a world without his mentor is unthinkable. Facing that, his greatest fear, is a test that defines who Harry is and who he will be, and the movie clearly externalizes that internal dilemma.
I love how Yates has grown so confident with the effects work this time that it's almost invisible. You know someone's comfortable with it when they no longer feel the need to rub your nose in it. There are tons and tons of special effects in the film, but they're used to simply flesh out the world or to punctuate dramatic beats. Even moments like the Quidditch match, which felt like they always stopped the films cold in earlier movies, are played here as character beats. Hogwarts is less showy overall, but that means that when magic is invoked, it actually feels like magic again. The opening attack on the Millenium Bridge in England is shocking because we're not used to seeing the mundane world rub up against the magic of the Potter series quite so blatantly. In general, Yates seems good at suggesting that all of this is happening right under our noses, that we're not looking at a different world, but rather at our own with different eyes. Even more than Cuaron with "Azkaban," Yates has managed to combine the real and the unreal in a way that feels absolutely grounded.
I have full confidence now that Yates, working with screenwriter Steve Kloves, who was profoundly missed on the last movie, is going to stick the landing with the next two films, and we may be looking at a singular accomplishment in fantasy filmmaking by the time all is said and done. I don't think this is a beat-for-beat translation of the book... it's been a while since I've read it, so I can't tell you what minutiae did or didn't make the cut... but in spirit, this is the first time I've felt like I can wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone as a great film, not just a great entry in this particular series. That's surprising considering how far down the road we are, and I sincerely look forward to seeing this one again as soon as possible.
Don't forget to check out our new gallery with tons of images to tide you over until the film opens on July 15th.
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