******** SPOILERS ABOUND!!! ********
As you may or may not know at this point - depending entirely on whether or not you're a regular reader of my ramblings, really - I'm not Harry Potter's biggest fan. In fact, it's safe to say that I'm in the camp that 'ain't a huge fan', to put it delicately. So you can imagine how tough it might be for me to admit just how much of an improvement the latest entry into Potter's cinematic canon is...more so for me to admit that I actually, sorta, maybe, y'know...enjoyed it. Terrifying, I know, but allow me to elaborate.
Let's get the bad out of the way first - it's the usual gamut of complaints that have plagued the franchise from day one. The acting of the kids is wildly inconsistent, with Rupert Grint the only one coming out of that particular clusterfuck with a genuine smile on his face. Conversely, Emma Watson is left crushed at the bottom of it, her Hermione a limp shadow of the 'next best thing' that she was touted as.
For me, it's slowly precipitating that Miss Watson should perhaps investigate a new path for her acting career, because she can simply no longer sit in the kooky, fuzzy, intellectual shoes of Miss Granger - that type of character acting seems to be simultaneous way above her and miles below her. Perhaps if she learned how to move parts of her face other than her eyebrows and nostrils...anyway, the mantle of 'female carrying the franchise' falls squarely on Bonnie Wright's shoulders. There's nothing short of a miraculous improvement as her Ginnie steps from a supporting role into the main ensemble. Potter himself remains largely unchanged, with Radcliffe maintaining the monotony of his performance for yet another film. 'Forgettable' is an apt word for his portrayal - there are far more interesting characters in this film, but I'll talk about them later.
Then there's the other niggle in that this just so happens to be based upon the weakest of the seven novels, and what flimsy plot the was in the first place - the novel was essentially a protracted sign-off for Dumbledore - has been stripped down even further. Whilst the novel had a few interesting side-plots that - whilst not essential - gave some bulk to the canon as a whole, this leaves but the bare bones, and seeing as the novel had barely three major plot points, the movie can do nothing but follow them from A to B to C rather diligently. It very much feels like a secondary concern, neglected in favour of the two part bonanza that is to be The Deathly Hallows Parts One and Two, serving only to represent the fact that another school year has passed in their world, with about 10 minutes of dramatic weight total amid all the filler. This doesn't, however, stop it from being a 153-minute behemoth that - were it not for the soon-to-be-mentioned positives - would test the patience of even the most dedicated Potter fan.
But positives there are, and such positives as have never graced the franchise until now. This is - for the most part, at least - down to one man: David Yates. Apparently there are wizards in this world - even if their powers are as mundane as being able to manipulate celluloid in a pleasing manner. Regardless, Yates has conjured up an absolute visual treat - a fully realised fantasy world that far surpasses anything described in those now dusty old tomes. Gorgeous, special-effects-enhanced vistas and intimate, detailed explorations of Hogwarts Diagon Alley and the Weasley's home are the order of the day - the fragility of the plot allowing Yates a huge amount of breathing room to explore the world itself, and whilst there's a lot of plot lost to the cutting room floor, the amount of detail is second to none. To say that Half-Blood Prince makes Order of the Phoenix look like test footage is to understate the matter immensely.
The quidditch sequences too - whilst not a core part of the proceedings, despite it being perhaps one of the most cinematic 'sports' ever conceived - are exhilarating, but more importantly are flecked with a fantastically cheeky wit, as are all but the most serious of the set pieces. A straight face is not an option, if I'm being honest - you should be smiling whilst watching this movie, otherwise you may very well be dead.
But it's not just directorial flair that pulls Potter 6 out of the doldrums and into the realms of enjoyable. That's also down to same absolutely fantastic performances from the older members of the cast. Alan Rickman and Dame Maggie Smith once again excel as Snape and MacGonagal respectively - and the quality of the film, it seems, has finally caught up with them. Michael Gambon - whilst still nowhere near as good a fit as the late, great Sir Richard Harris - has real poise and fragile grace as the under-fire Dumbledore, and David Thewlis -whilst hideously under-used - is still as good as ever as Remus Lupin.
It is, however, the newer cast members that are the most interesting. Most pleasing of all is an absolutely magnificent performance from Jim Broadbent as the mildly delusional Professor Slughorn, playing it with joyous pomp and sombre gravity in equal measure. Then there's Helena Bonham Carter's deliciously unstable portrayal of Bellatrix Lestrange, all wild eyes and a strange, gaunt delicacy that I'd imagine Carter being the only one capable of bringing to the character.
All in all, this is a film that sacrifices some meat of the plot in favour of some wonderful performances (from the adults, at least) and a hugely refined vision of the world. There's still the usual problems that stem from the days when Chris Columbus was in charge, but if you can step past them, there's actually far too much to like about the film. Disturbingly so, in fact. I think I'll need a shower...but...