Until now, the only Harry Potter movie I've really been able to stand was The Prisoner of Azkaban, for a variety of reasons. It was an actual movie, not simply a crummy slapping of the book onscreen, that finally made Hogwarts as much of a character as the children I'd not been sold on until Alfonso Cuaron took them under his wing and showed them how to be actors. It probed the darkness that, in the books, was only starting to rear its head, and it pissed off a fanbase that I didn't particularly care for, so that was a serious mark in its favor. My heart was heavy when I found out Cuaron wasn't to direct The Goblet of Fire (but, let's be fair: Children of Men is a hell of a movie), and so I reconciled myself to the fact that there would never be a Harry Potter movie I enjoyed. Goblet of Fire was so badly paced that I'd probably rate it a worse experience than either of the Chris Columbus movies, and Order of the Phoenix only got interesting when the wizard gunfight broke out towards the end. Anybody who actually expected the Harry Potter movies to be any good was hoping for far too much, anyway.
It's still tough to believe that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has gotten the glowing reviews its received. Tough, not because it's an excellent movie (because it's very good, but I'm getting ahead of myself), but because it's a Harry Potter movie. It may well force me to reevaluate my impressions of the series as a whole (I doubt strongly they'll change much, but the simple fact that it may well do this is a high mark in its favor). It's still not Prisoner of Azkaban, but David Yates has clearly learned enough from his previous gig, and his predecessors, that it's entirely possible he could surpass that high water mark by the time the second Deathly Hallows movie comes out.
Yates has figured out how to play with the space that the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft provides him; he probes the shadows of the old castle to uncover those lying within the characters that have always been the movies' greatest assets. The literal differences between the high and low spaces in the castle, as Ron and Lavender run up the steps to begin their ill-advised relationship, while Harry comforts Hermione in the basement, have been so underused in most of the rest of the series as to be depressing. Bellatrix's destruction of the Great Hall at the end of the film, followed by her torching of Hagrid's cabin, are not mere desecrations of spaces, but deaths of characters, important as any other after six films.
Speaking of deaths (the series' worst-kept secret, after all), the time that Michael Gambon was given to shine was not wasted. The negative blowback that came from his arrival as Richard Harris' replacement to the part of Albus Dumbledore probably went a long way towards tainting the fanbase's perception of Prisoner of Azkaban, but I was never able to understand it. Harris was grandfatherly, for sure, but conveyed none of the power that Dumbledore had from the series' get-go, that would become so very essential as both the books and the films went along, reaching its high water mark here. Gambon has power in his presence; he always does. Sure, he's grandfatherly in that Obi-Wan Kenobi way that Dumbledore needs to be, and anyone with that bead would look bookish, like a professor, but Gambon conveys the strength that the Hogwarts headmaster calls upon when he has to go to war. He's at his highest and his lowest in this film, and those opposing moments come within seconds of each other when he's with Harry in the cave. As he's drinking the poisoned water, begging Harry to stop and, eventually, to kill him (isn't the ironing delicious?), he's fallen as far as he can go, but then, as Harry's pulled under water by the Inferi, he sets the world on fire and saves his young student's life. His silent communication with Snape, just before he's killed and falls off the tower, is a beautiful rendering of an essential moment in the book (for once, I'm happy with the series' overall fanatical fidelity to its source material).
Really, though, the Harry Potter film series' lasting contribution to the world will have everything to do with its acting. Not simply because it reminds an impatient society the virtues of patience (a big part of the reason this film is as good as it is, I'm convinced, is because we've had the chance to watch the principal actors really and truly grow into their roles. Rupert Grint, in particular, has fashioned himself in a fine comedic actor – not that anyone with a good eye couldn't see it coming, but it's awfully nice when potential is realized. Tom Felton has found the bit inside Draco Malfoy that's good, and has figured out how to mine it to great effect. Daniel Radcliffe has really learned how to be a subtle actor, particularly with his eyes, and Emma Watson, well, there's never really been any complaint I could make about her acting. She was perfect from the get-go, and she's just unfolded layer after layer of Hermione Granger as the years have gone by. I do hope she doesn't end her acting career with Deathly Hallows II. It would be a great loss), but because it's introduced a generation of young film-goers to a who's who of great British actors. Kenneth Branaugh, Ralph Finnes, Gary Oldman, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman (who's finally given more of a part to work with this time around), Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Christie, John Cleese, Timothy Spall, David Tennant, Robbie Coltrane, David Thewlis, George Harris, Warwick Davis, Imelda Staunton, Helena Bonham Carter... The supporting cast members have been, without variation, extraordinary, and have hopefully inspired some curious members of the audience to check out some of their work that didn't have hundreds of millions of dollars behind it. Jim Broadbent, as Professor Horace Slughorn, upholds that tradition finely, and surpasses the bulk of those that have come before him. He's haunted by Voldemort from the instant he appears onscreen up until the moment he admits to Harry that, well, much of the student-formerly-known-as-Tom-Riddle's mad rise to power is directly attributable to something he once foolishly mentioned without thinking. To an audience that may only be best familiar with him from Moulin Rogue (another fantastic performance of his), he may well be startling in Half-Blood Prince, and that's a great thing.
The moments where the movie most clearly diverges from the book – the ones that feel most directly inspired by the tone of Prisoner of Azkaban – were certainly among the most compelling for me. Harry's final moment among the Muggles, where he flirts with a cute waitress who knows far more about the art of seduction than he, does a more than passable job of replacing the conversation between Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge and the “current British Prime Minister” that opens the book, grounding us in our own non-magical reality once again, and the Death Eaters' attack on the Weasley family's home at the Burrow, bringing home the danger of Voldemort's rise to power in a very Children of Men-esque way (from the completely-not-in-series-character shaky cam, to the instantaneous thievery of the power the characters felt only a moment earlier, to the senselessness of tragedy, to the lack of emotionally manipulative, bombastic music throughout). Not simply because I didn't have these moments committed to memory, but because they were the moments where the movie became its own entity, when it fashioned sequences well-suited to its form of storytelling, so different from a novel.
Since this was the last time we're going to see Quidditch (presumably) on the silver screen, I'm very glad they chose to send it off on a high note; Ron Weasley triumphant over all the naysayers (followed by the series' descent into Varsity Blues-like debauchery; I suppose teenagers really are the same, no matter if they're American, British, wizard, or Muggle) was a fine moment to end what was one of the best-shot Quidditch matches in the series' history. The speed at which the game unfolds, well, it still boggles my mind, and the constant lurking danger underneath an adventure, a game, was a great inadvertent metaphor for Harry's life both in school and out of it.
Actually, for a movie as dark as this one was (probably best comparable to Two Towers or Empire, seeing as how our heroes have been brought as low as they're going to be), there were a lot of laugh moments. It balanced the brightness and the shadows quite well.
As much as I'd like to unequivocally recommend this film to anyone that likes a good experience in the theater, I wonder how much of my enjoyment was fueled by the fact that I've invested so much time into these characters, this story, between the books and the films. I've slogged through over two hours of uninteresting movie for every hour of compelling filmmaking at this point; I've seen the stars grow from the time they were very small until now. It's an odd, nearly familial feeling I have at this point, so when the film is triumphant, that feeling is likely magnified for me a good deal. That's not to say Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince's filmmaking bona fides are in question; they're not. I just don't know if anyone who hasn't invested the time that a person like me has will feel quite as strongly about it. It's a fine film, for sure, but it may not be as fine to a viewer that's not seen the five preceeding ones.