Harry Potter is back again to grace us with the sixth installment of the series, and it's time to rollout a report card for the latest film. One of the biggest things I noted about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince off the bat this time around is that you better be at least a little familiar with the series, as this is definitely part six of an ongoing franchise rather than a film you can pick up by itself. If you're not familiar with any of the staple characters (and this means all of them, not just Harry, Ron, and Hermione), you're probably in for a good amount of confusion as to who's who. Not a single character is really given an introduction besides the single major new addition, the well intentioned but dithering Professor Horace Slughorn. Many plot points are given with an understanding that you already have a good grasp of how the world of Harry Potter works, otherwise you might be scratching your head when Professor Dumbledore suddenly pulls out a bunch of vials containing memories. However, while this may be a detriment in ways, it is definitely necessary, as the plot in this film puts in place the beginning of the end of this saga. By the film's tragic close you can tell that every piece has been put into place so that a conclusive finale is just around the corner. So although some may be alienated by the insider tone of the film, too much explanation at this point in the series would have definitely detracted from what was necessary for this film to set up for the next.
As for how this measures up then in terms of the rest of the series, it's best compared to the previous installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which was also directed by this film's helmsman, David Yates. Similar in visual style in many ways, they differ greatly in how they advance the plot. Where Phoenix was non-stop action, adventure, and intrigue from beginning to end, Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves have definitely slowed things down this time to allow the characters to develop at a slower pace, all the while slowly building up the bleak atmosphere now dominating the wizarding world since war with Voldemort has more or less broken out.
One of the most distinct tenets of the character development in this film is the heavy presence of the fully teenaged romances the main trio is involved in. Hermione pines over Ron while he obliviously misses her advances and falls for a quidditch fangirl who wants to do nothing but snog him. Meanwhile, Harry pines for Ron's sister Ginny, which Hermione takes note of but Ron is oblivious of for the longest time, butting in at awkward times. While this all may seem a bit more soap opera than many were hoping for in what is otherwise a very dreary film, it serves not only as effective comic relief, but also emphasizes just how dark everything else is. These three are but teenagers caught up in a conflict that is far beyond the usual drama of their age group, which really brings to the forefront just how tragic it is that these otherwise normal teens have to deal with such terrible things.
And as for how dark the film is, I am simply astounded this film was rated PG by the MPAA, for I would severely hesitate about bringing a child under the age of ten to this film. Talk of murdering people as protective magic; a plot to assassinate a major character; willfully poisoning a mentor at his behest for the greater good; all of these alone would make a film heavy material for most kids, let alone all of them and more in a single film. There are also parts of the film that would definitely be very creepy to a lot of kids, such as when Harry and Dumbledore are attacked by gaunt golems in a very dark cavern. But of course, there are only a few times in the film that violence actually leads to bloodshed, so that means it must be acceptable for children, right?
The cinematography in the film is quite fantastic, going from dilapidated urban settings and the claustrophobic interior of Hogwart's to expansive views of the British countryside and moors. The darkness pressing on the manmade settings and the light bathing the shots of the countryside create a brilliant contrast, especially during the winter scenes when the land is covered in pure white snow. These jarring changes of scenery help keep the viewer subconsciously on edge throughout the film, adding to the level of tension permeating Hogwart's.
All the actors from the previous films are back in fine form, but a special mention must be given of Tom Felton, who brings a wrenching humanity to Dracy Malfoy that was never really seen in the other films. He may be a right bastard, but he still has a conscience lurking underneath his tormented interior somewhere, and Felton gives life to the turmoil beneath Draco's bravado, which he has never been able to show anyone in his life. Jim Broadbent plays Slughorn effectively, never overtaking a scene in anyway, which is exactly what is needed in a character that never wants too much attention because of the secret he can share with no one.
All in all, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a welcome addition to the series. When the action actually picks up it will keep you gripped, and during the lulls you'll get to know how all the characters have matured in the wake of the previous film's events. If you've come to know the characters well, you'll find the humor and pathos of their lives touching, happy to see who they have grown into, but upset at what they must continue to suffer. The special effects are top-notch, and you should really pay attention to the details in the scene where Dumbledore puts a completely trashed room back in order and everything flies back together as if put in rewind, with characters standing in the midst of it all. After the successes of both Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, which are only the second and third feature films directed by David Yates, I am more than curious to see where his career takes him as a director once he finishes with the rest of the Harry Potter series.