The story needs no introduction to most people, so I'll content myself with saying that David Yates's second round with the series is the best film of the set since Alfonso Cuaron's Prisoner of Azbakan. It's a wonder of art direction that approaches an ideal of fantasy cinema in its near-abandonment of exposition. Yates and adapter Steve Kloves are confident enough in the audience's familiarity with the material that they can send you right into Hogwarts and environs without you feeling that they're holding your hand and explaining every little detail like this is your first time there. That's really been so for the last couple of episodes, but the previous two felt choppy and somewhat incomplete compared to this one. Yates has clearly got his grip on the material now, and may be able to name his price when he finishes the two-part finale. But I wonder whether he isn't like quarterbacks on certain college football teams whose programs are designed to score touchdowns by the bushel and earn their stars Heisman trophies, who then flop in the NFL. That is, it's open to debate how much Yates benefits from his production team and his pantheon cast of English actors, or how much Yates himself has imposed organization on it all.
Fidelity to the novel I cannot judge. I've tried to read the first book after multiple recommendations, but I can't shake the feeling that J. K. Rowling really is writing down to an audience of young children. I imagine that changes as the series goes on, but I wouldn't want to start in the middle. I know other people dislike Rowling's writings. There was a children's book seller in my neighborhood in Albany who refused to carry the Potters because he thought them so badly written, but I ought to add that he went out of business this summer. In any event, I can judge the films on their own merits as screen stories rather than by fidelity to the books. The latter films must have cut out lots of material from the increasingly enormous novels, but while you could tell that from the last film, for instance, the new one feels more like a whole story. If anything it has to juggle nearly more than it can handle in maintaining a balance between the menace of the Dark Lord and the personal struggles of the hormonal Hogwarts kids as they go through the motions of another year. The comedy of their romantic tangles is welcome, but I can't help wondering whether there should have been more of a sense of crisis among the student body as a whole following the revolt in the previous film.
The series as a whole will be a monument to ensemble acting, but I want to single out two standout performers for praise this time. Of Michael Gambon, the replacement Dumbledore, I think I can now say that, had Ian McKellan not been at Peter Jackson's disposal a decade ago, Gambon could have filled in nicely as Gandalf. I tip my metaphorical hat to him. But the person who nearly steals this film from everyone else is an actor I might have thought least capable of doing so. Throughout the series until now, Tom Felton in the role of Draco Malfoy has seemed like a waste of space. Built up in the ballyhoo since the first film as Harry Potter's schoolyard arch-enemy, Malfoy has really had little to do in the movies, as I remember them, and has been dreadfully unimpressive in what he did do. In the new film Draco has an important plot function, and it's as if someone finally turned the "On" switch on Felton. Draco Malfoy emerges as a nearly-tragic figure who trembles under the heavy responsibility of perpetrating a great evil whether he really wants to or not, torn between a sense of duty and a desire to prove himself, on one hand, and something between cowardice and guilty self-loathing on the other hand. This is much more of a character challenge than the mere bully that Malfoy has usually been on screen, and Felton, in my opinion, nails it. He has finally earned his spot alongside his phenomenal fellow youngsters in a new generation of English actors, and I'd now be interested in seeing him in other roles.
Half-Blood Prince is the Empire Strikes Back of the film series, providing arguably the darkest moment of the long story and setting up the grand finale. From the reviews and the box office receipts it seems that it will fulfill its function and leave people eager for the seventh round next year. Whether Yates and Kloves will be able to break the final novel in half and leave each half a coherent whole of a film is a question for another time.