Not long after the closing credits rolled on ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,’ I had a realization.  Director David Yates and
screenwriter Steve Kloves had done the (nearly) impossible.  They have not only made the darkest, scariest, and most emotionally powerful
film in the series, but also the funniest and most charming.

Even in the bleakest of tales, humor is essential.  And as a genuine sense of dread pervades this entire film, the humor works perfectly to
put these lovable characters even closer to our hearts.  So when there is true peril, we feel it all the more.

I love how this film is able to switch on the fly between utter hilarity and drama without it ever feeling forced.  A lot of the laughs come in
regards to the Hogwarts dating scene, which has now ramped up to a fever pitch in Harry’s sixth year.  Harry is falling for Ron’s sister,
Ginny.  Hermione has fallen for Ron.  But Ron is going out with the ridiculously clingy Lavender Brown.  We laugh until we see Hermione’s
reaction, which is wrenching and a perfect example of how the film balances its two sides.

Perhaps even more impressive is the work of Yates.  He directed the previous installment, but it’s hard to believe we are watching the
same man at work here.  He has found an incredible confidence in just his second major film.  His wondrous camerawork flies through
corridors, winds through staircases, jumps through windows and creates visual excitement where others would simply be content with a
more traditional approach.  He is able to do all this without ever being intrusive to the action.

Yates is also aided by the continually excellent work of art director Stuart Craig and truly magnificent cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel.  
If it doesn’t receive an Oscar nomination here, it’s a joke.  His photography is gorgeous with some wonderfully color-bled sequences that
border on black and white and feel absolutely appropriate in the increasingly ominous magical world.

‘Half-Blood Prince’ is a rare film that is masterful in every visual aspect.  The combination of direction, art, cinematography and visual
effects is astounding.

The film also has the superb sound design we have come to expect from the series, along with an effective, if not particularly memorable,
score by Nicholas Hooper.  One can’t help but hope the rumors of John Williams’ return to score the remaining two films are true, even if
Hooper’s work is perfectly adequate here.

Yates’ new confidence also extends to the performances he gets out of these actors.  Each of the three kids feels more natural than ever,
and with the increased humor and drama, they were certainly tested here.

Among the returning adult cast members, Michael Gambon truly steals the show.  His performance as Dumbledore is right at the heart of
this film and he steals every single scene he is in.

This is also easily the best performance from Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy.  He is constantly tormented throughout the film.  We can see the
weight on his shoulders threatening to crush him.  And when his conflict comes to a head in the climax of the film, he hits the perfect note.

The new professor this year is Jim Broadbent, and he is also truly excellent.  Another great comedic performance that manages to hit you in
the gut when he reveals his darkest secret through watery and shameful eyes.

Perhaps the biggest problem with ‘Half-Blood Prince’ is the same problem that has always plagued the Harry Potter films.  They tend to be a
bit fragmented in terms of plot.  Here we juggle the romance with the identity of the Half-Blood Prince and unraveling the past of Lord

The latter of which are exceptionally well-executed and genuinely creepy.

This is easily the scariest film in the series, and when Harry and Dumbledore venture to a cave near the end of the film, it shifts into
genuine horror.  I won’t spoil what follows, but the film ends with a tragic event that is executed very powerfully.  The final scene is a tease
for what’s to come, but also a beautiful farewell to the loss of innocence.  Harry, Ron, and Hermione begin the film as schoolchildren and
end as adults ready to embark on a horrifying mission.

‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’ is hilarious, terrifying, and thrilling and has enough heart to put most films to shame.  It also tops
‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ as the most visually stunning film in the series.  For all these reasons, ‘Half-Blood Prince’ is not just a great Harry
Potter film, but a great fantasy film and a great film in general.  With the same core creative team intact for the final two installments in the
series, it’s looking more and more like this series will go down as one of the greatest in film history, and I, for one, am both thrilled and
saddened to see it coming to an end.

* * * *
(out of four)
Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Steve Kloves

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint,
Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Alan Rickman

Cinematography by: Bruno Delbonnel

Music by: Nicholas Hooper

Released: July 15, 2009; 153 Minutes