Part of me wishes that I could watch the Harry Potter movies independent of any knowledge of the books to see how they stand up as movies on their own rather than adaptations of beloved novels. As with any film based on a book, readers of the books always bring preconceived notions about what does and does not need to make it to the screen. And when those preconceived notions don't pan out, it's difficult not to let that fact color your viewing of the film, rather than considering it as an independent entity.
Such is the case with "Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince" (hereafter known as HBP). After seeing it this evening in an early showing on opening night, I can honestly say that I enjoyed it far more than its disappointing predecessor, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" but not nearly as much as early films, such as the stellar "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban", which offered not only the finest adaptation but I believe the best embodiment of the spirit, energy, and emotion of the books.
As anyone who hasn't been living in a cave for the last few years knows, HBP marks the beginning of the end of the Harry Potter saga as Harry and friends return to Hogwarts for their sixth year. The history and psychology of Lord Voldemort, the darkest of dark wizards, is given depth and color. Students fall in love. Past foes are revealed as frightened and flawed. Violence comes to the school, and a beloved character dies in an apparent act of base betrayal.
Theoretically, each of those elements is found in the film version of HBP but in most cases, without the full spectrum of depth, colors, and tastes. It's not too surprising, of course, when you're faced with turning a 652 page novel into a 2 hour and 15 minute film. Even so, like "Order of the Phoenix," I felt short-changed by the film's screenplay as critical elements are skimmed over, major plot points are ignored or simply left unexplained, and elements that we know are critical in later books are either only hinted at or outright eliminated.
There are also "don't blink or you'll miss them" appearances by significant characters (Nymphadora Tonks, for example) who, if you didn't know to look for them or remember them from the prior film, you would be left wondering exactly who they are and what they're doing in the film. By the same token, one major, traumatic event in the middle of the film is a) nowhere to be found in the books, b) serves little purpose in the the film except to offer a big bang, and c) is then completely dropped as if it never happened. Why this set piece is in the film while the climatic events at the book's conclusion are played out in a far more quiet and less dramatic fashion, I have no idea.
Despite this criticism, which I candidly admit does unfairly compare the movie to the novel, HBP offers a great deal for the audience to enjoy including a wonderful design for the world of Harry Potter, some truly magical special effects, and the first Quidditch match that actually feels like you're watching a sporting event rather than a computer-generated game.
As always, the acting is solid with the performers inhabiting their roles like a comfortable set of wizards' robes. Several of the long-time, younger cast members also get the opportunity to expand and shine. Tom Felton's Draco Malfoy moves from sneering cardboard cutout to a dangerous yet scared young man. Bonnie Wright finally has an opportunity to step up as Ginny Weasley and her few quiet scenes with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) are redolent with romance, tenderness, and just a touch of sensuality that hints of what lies ahead when the characters leave Hogwarts and enter adulthood.
Veteran Jim Broadbent, making his first appearance in a Potter film, is outstanding as Professor Horace Slughorn, a newcomer to Hogwarts with a terrible secret and a love of name-dropping. Where Slughorn was a bit of a buffoon in the book, Broadbent tempers that buffoonishness with pathos and regret that come to a head as his secret is revealed. He's matched stride for stride by the great Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, former Potions Master and now Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Wonderful sleek and oozing with disdain in the prior films, Rickman's Snape is more fully rounded now, as you can see his performance taking into account and setting up the events and revelations that come in the final book (and were previously unavailable to Rickman).
One of the keys to the story and a focal point of the film, is the exploration by Harry and Professor Dumbledore (an excellent Michael Gambon) of Lord Voldemort's history by way of memories. While I regret that the screenplay limits these journeys into memory to two...well, two and a half...the film makes the most of them with stunning visuals and two outstanding and frightening portrayals of Lord Voldemort in his younger years by Hero Fiennes Tiffin and Frank Dillane. In each case, you're captured by the knowing gleam in their eyes, the effortless manipulation, and the hunger for power. In their own way, these two are more frightening than the older, snakelike Voldemort portrayed by Ralph Fiennes (Hero's uncle, by the way), showing us the face of evil emerging.
In the end, it's the competing visions of youth sacrificed for evil and youth stepping forward into adulthood that drive "Half-blood Prince." While I might not agree with everything that is included or left out from the novel, director David Yates and his cast get that one right.