(In the unlikely event of unfamiliarity with the subject matter, here there be spoilers....)
The trajectory of the six Harry Potter films to date (with two more, adapted from the final book, to go) has unwittingly mirrored the erratic essence of adolescence. Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets, both directed by Chris Columbus, were cutesy-poo hackwork; the highly regarded Prisoner of Azkaban, by the auteur Alfonso Cuaron, showed a refreshing understanding of how to operate a camera and transformed its flailing child actors into markedly improved performers but also featured questionable touches like talking shrunken Jamaican heads and a cheesy closing freeze-frame and nudgy Y Tu Mama Tambien-ish puns about Harry's "wand"; Mike Newell's Goblet of Fire was a ham-fisted exercise in grim brutality; but the relatively sleek and nimble Order of the Phoenix, directed by David Yates, turned the longest of the books into the shortest of the movies, and despite its flaws was the first of the series to successfully fuse J.K. Rowling's vision with a director's personal sensibility.
Yates is back for the newest installment, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and this time he comes pretty damn close to greatness. The brief opening teaser, a shot of a bloodied Harry standing alongside Dumbledore before an ensemble of photographers with cracking flashbulbs, brilliantly stands outside of the story while simultaneously encapsulating it. Harry's unwanted celebrity, the price he has paid for it, and his need for a mentor's guidance to accept his destiny and find a life in spite of dire odds are the primary touchstones of Rowling's saga; and The Half-Blood Prince offers a more reflective, less anger-prone hero than last time around. Even with the death of his godfather Sirius Black, he's less isolated than before, back under Dumbledore's direct tutelage and in the company of friends Ron and Hermione. By now Daniel Radcliffe, Emily Watson and (less impressively) Rupert Grint have the intuitive understanding of each other and their roles to pull off their interactions with ease. One of the biggest laughs in the movie comes when Harry half-jokingly, half-seriously boasts that he's "the Chosen One," and Hermione playfully whacks him over the head with a book. It's a casually tossed off piece of slapstick (and Radcliffe's giddy grin upon getting smacked is contagious), yet the subtext contains deep truths: Harry has finally accepted who he is, but is fortunate enough to have friends to help manage his ego and bring him back down to earth.
Each post-Columbus Potter movie has deepened a couple of characters beyond what they were to us before. This time, it's one-note kiddie villain Draco Malfoy on whom Yates wields the best results (and the actor portraying him, Tom Felton, suddenly seems more than his generation's William Zabka). Yates frames him as sort of a blonde Anton Chigurh, with minimal dialogue, lingering alone in the shadows, only not bereft of conscience. Malfoy does some terrible things in Half-Blood Prince, and the question of his ability to carry out the worst of his objectives plays out superbly.
Also making a more vivid impression is Bonnie Wright as the self-possessed Ginny Weasley, Ron's younger sister and Harry's new love interest. The pair share a gorgeous scene in a room filled with dust-collecting magical antiques -- lovingly interpreted by Stephanie Zacharek that "Romantic love, as an idea, may technically be very old, but it's the young who keep it new by continually breathing life into it." On the more ancient side of things, Michael Gambon, in his fourth go-round as Dumbledore, replacing the late Richard Harris, has always conveyed the character's eccentricities while lacking a certain stature. (Harris achieved the opposite effect.) I'm not sure Gambon carries more weight here, yet there's a tighter focus to his performance, a connection with Radcliffe's Harry that had hitherto been deficient. I've also never much cared for Jim Broadbent, the latest Mike Leigh alum to appear in the series; but he capably fills the crucial guest-starring role of Horace Slughorn, professor of Potions and former mentor of Tom Riddle/Voldemort, with a lack of fuss. (Cuaron might not have been able to resist adding sexual subtext to Slughorn's "collecting" of student proteges, but Yates blessedly abstains.)
Few adaptations are perfect, and Half-Blood Prince has a handful of passages that dawdle too long or falter in tone: one pivotal scene, where Harry nearly kills another character, is rather cavalierly dismissed. Yet Steve Kloves's screenplay follows the horcrux-oriented plot (horcruxes being items in which Voldemort hid shards of his soul and are the key to destroying him) while seeming less dot-connective, more concentrated on character and theme than his previous efforts. And through it all David Yates directs with authority and grace. Sort of a more disciplined John Boorman, Yates lacks the unabashed looniness of Boorman (or George Miller or Terry Gilliam) to truly break the mold in a way that would likely estrange legions of fans; his practicality is probably why he was invited to return for not only this film but also the the final two movies to be adapted from Rowling's epic conclusion, The Deathly Hallows. Yet Yates is an often wizardly director, with a knack for ingenious verbal echoes and recurring visual motifs: an early image of a pair of villains clenched together is mirrored later with a pair of protagonists tenderly holding hands. Half-Blood Prince is as thought-out visually as was Order of the Phoenix, only with more connective emotional tissue holding it together. At the climax, as darkness threatens to fall, comes a simple display of hope and defiance (with Nicholas Hooper's remarkably attuned score reaching new heights), an image so beautiful it choked me up. So many filmmakers come across with compromised visions -- have split their souls into multiples -- that to create a blockbuster as cohesively heartfelt as this one takes more than Liquid Luck. It takes true vision, and the company of gifted peers who are less followers than believers.