Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, in 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince'

Dir. David Yates
(2009, PG, 153 min)
★ ★ ★ ★

This is not a review I expected to write. Having read none of the books, I’ve dutifully watched all of the Harry Potter films, and they’ve all been generally good, except for one — the fourth, Goblet of Fire — which was exceedingly good. The sixth go round, Half-Blood Prince, is the first I’ve missed in theaters, but catching up with it now on DVD I find that it does for teenage wizard movies what The Dark Knight did for superhero movies. This is not only the best installment of the series but superior filmmaking by any standard.

When we drop back into the story, the Death Eaters, agents of evil Lord Voldemort, are a continued threat. To fight them, Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) recruits Professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), a potions expert who was once the dark lord’s teacher and has an important secret buried deep in his memory.

Over the summer, rumors have spread that Hogwarts isn’t safe, and no wonder — something tries to kill the student body every semester. So begins another school year. Once again, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) board the train from the world of muggles to the world of magic. Once again, Dumbledore addresses them all in the Great Hall, lit by floating candles. And classes, and quidditch, and another looming threat.

The Harry Potter films have all clocked in around two-and-a-half hours, and this one makes the most of its real estate. Light on plot early on, it shows gratifying attention to character and small, observant moments, which might have been the first to hit the cutting room floor in a film more interested in action and effects. Relationships are established using furtive glances and reactions, and dialogue that expresses more than what is said.

David Yates directs, as he did the previous film, Order of the Phoenix, and brings surprising maturity to the material. His slow, steady camera movements create an atmosphere of foreboding and reveal evocative details within the frame: Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) shown partially obscured on the edge of a shot as he eavesdrops, sinister guards seen in the distant background patrolling the entrance of the Great Hall, a slow pan to reveal Harry in the shadows overhearing a conversation.

Yates, a TV veteran, expertly paces Steve Kloves’s detailed, novelistic script, never rushing scenes or sacrificing character to hit plot points. The cast, as in all the Potter films, is a who’s who of British acting talent, and Yates seems to relish crafting their performances, as during the swearing of a sinister oath between Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) and Narcissa Malfoy (Helen McCrory) and an anguished confession from Professor Slughorn. Yates gives the performers space to invest these scenes, and others, with genuine dread, ambiguity, and pathos.

The world of Hogwarts has never been so enveloping, to which I credit the exquisite cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel (the film’s only Oscar nomination) and production design of Stuart Craig. A battle with Death Eaters is elevated by the ethereal glow of a wheat field. The search for a magical object is made more gripping by the stark contrasts of a mysterious cave illuminated by enchanted flares. Scenes inside the school pack so much visual content into every shot that our eyes explore them from one corner of the screen to the other. The Harry Potter films started in 2001, and since then the kids have all grown up. Now so have the films.