There's a common observation that the Alien franchise is something of a director's showcase: take one lead character, one basic concept, one highly memorable monster design, and give it to someone with some very specific ideas for story and visuals, and you end up with four extraordinarily different movies that don't even necessarily belong to the same genre. I am coming around to a similar idea for the Harry Potter series: it's turning into quite the showcase for cinematographers to show of their own personal flair for what to do with the material. Putting it that way probably minimises the work of the film's directors more than I ought to, and yet in six films there have been five different DPs and only four different directors, and at least in the last two instances, one single director, a certain David Yates, has overseen two vastly different visual experiences, one shot by the amazing Slawomir Idziak, the other by the truly brilliant Bruno Delbonnel. Which is not to say that Yates doesn't have plenty to add of his own, and there's a certain undeniable something that marks the two "Yates Potters" as different from the other four.

But all of this is just a roundabout way of saying, How exciting it is that an essentially mercenary tentpole franchise based on a wildly popular series of novels and aimed squarely at a family audience can nevertheless be so extremely well-made that we can even bother talking about things like the personality of the directors vs. their cinematographers! Absent the dreadful first two, the Potter films have become a semi-regular dose of absolutely marvelous blockbuster filmmaking, maybe not "challenging" in any kind of cinephiliac sense, but exquisitely crafted in most senses: and while each of the last three have had any number of wonderful elements to recommend themselves, this sixth film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is the best one yet, the peak film in the franchise across nearly every mode of filmmaking you might think of, from the acting (which except for one performer, has never been better), to the writing (unlike most of the others, it can stand up almost entirely without reference to J.K. Rowling's over-praised, slackly-written novels), to the production design (though mostly based on the preceding films, it's a great deal more spare and dusty and isolated), to, yes, the cinematography, which is so unbearably lovely that I can't even quite stand it.

Let me have just one little more bit about the visuals, and I promise I'll move on. The 2007 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was already the most beautiful film in the franchise to that point, with a terrifically precise use of color for a big studio movie; the steely greys and blues of the sets clashing mightily with the garish pink associated with the movie's villain. Half-Blood Prince has swapped those greys for yellows and golds and the like, resulting in a movie with a powerfully autumnal palette; and why not, for the movie is very much about things drawing near to their close without ending just quite yet. Autumnal hues for an autumnal story, says I. But that's not the half of it, for there is also a very important recurring motif of travelling into other person's memories, represent by flickering shades of grey-green. And lastly, there is a truly stunning sequence set in a cave late in the film, a triumph of chiaroscuro lighting and minimalist production design that makes for one of the absolutely great creepy scenes in all of children's cinema. Delbonnel has long been one of my favorites, despite a rather limited filmography (including Amélie and Across the Universe), but it's this movie that finally pushes him right into the very upper tier of his craft.

And hey, like I said, the rest of the movie around Delbonnel ain't too shabby, either. Starting up just a few weeks after Order of the Phoenix ended, the film continues the franchise tradition of assuming that at the very least you've seen all of the preceding films, and know who these people are and what's going on. The short version of an extremely convoluted plot that doesn't have a story so much as a stream of incidents is that Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), now in his 6th year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, has been shanghaied into taking a class in potion-making, ostensibly because it will further his career, but primarily because the school's headmaster, Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), wants him to weasel his way into the confidences of the new potions professor, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), who may have some special knowledge of the dark wizard Voldemort, the baddie throughout these movies - though if you didn't already know that fact, this is absolutely not the right time for you to try to get into the Harry Potter films. It's thanks to this potions class that Harry finds a textbook from years ago, inscribed, "Property of the Half-Blood Prince", and the degree to which this Prince had benign intentions remains quite a mystery. While Harry and Dumbledore are busy with their plans to save all of civilisation, Harry also has to contend with the hormonal facts of a 16-year-old's life: his best friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) aren't speaking anymore, now that Ron has started dating somebody else, in flagrant violation of Hermione's longstanding, unspoken crush; while Harry is increasingly distraught that the girl of his own affections, Ron's sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright), is busy snogging another guy.

Rowling's novel was already quite dense - the most plot-filled novel of all seven, I'd say without a second's hesitation. So cutting it down to around two and a half hours must have been quite the hellish task for Steve Kloves, returning for his fifth stab at the series (he skipped out on the last movie). But it's a task that he handles with great skill, turning in a screenplay rivaled only by his own Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for clarity; there are only two points in the whole thing where he steps into the constant trap of these films, allowing the book to explain important details (the one point is that the story of what's happening to Ron is desperately undernourished, the other is the ultimate reveal of the Half-Blood Prince's identity, a horribly tossed-off moment for something referenced in the damn title of the damn movie). Admittedly, die-hard Potterites will have and already have plenty of complaints about what's gone missing, but they can go get fucked.

While the small goal of telling a coherent story is already a highlight for the series, the real special thing is that Kloves takes what's left once he's trimmed off hundreds of pages, and turns it to eleven, making the constant inertia of the movie hide the fact that there's no real conflict or plot arc in any real sense; as a self-contained narrative, Half-Blood Prince is a pretty great first act of the final movie.* And yet it never feels that way, because Kloves and Yates keep the heat on so long that it seems like something must be happening. It's a gamble that works, outstandingly well.

The acting is business as usual for the series: Radcliffe is getting better, Watson is getting worse, a whole truckload of Britain's best and brightest come out for a few scenes and are awesome (including Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, and above all else, Alan Rickman, who is flat-out perfect in his final scene in this entry), and a Special Guest Star blows everyone out of the water every time he opens his mouth. That would be Broadbent, absolutely tremendous as a twitchy bundle of nerves with a pronounced love of famous people. He's no Imelda Staunton (*sigh*... Imelda... the best thing about a bifurcated Deathly Hallows is that we shall be all the likelier to see you again, my dear darling), but it's perhaps the second-best performance anywhere in the series, outside of maybe Rickman as the oily Professor Snape, who is deepening his performance every single time, although with so many films to work with, it's not fair to compare him to the one-shots. A last word, in praise of Tom Felton, who plays Harry's young nemesis Draco: I've never been wholly sold on his work before, but this film sees him in an exceptional place, proving once again that villains make better characters than heroes, and give him much more interesting things to do as an actor than any of the trio of protagonists.

It is true, perhaps, that unlike the other five movies, there's less of a particular thematic line that Half-Blood Prince hangs on (it was a bit true of the novel, too, but the movie has all but eradicated the book's focus on the Harry/Dumbledore relationship; a disappointment, but a small one). What it has instead is a mood, of things changing and fading. And too, it's a crackling thriller, easily the most entertaining Harry Potter story on film or in print. Which is actually a pretty decent combination. Anyway, the film is just about as good as anything this summer: fun and playful but dark and elegiac, smart and directed with the utmost care (Yates may be slagged for the domesticity of his vision of the material, but tell me he doesn't know how to use every inch of the frame exactly the way it ought to be), and sprawling visual effects that emphasise for the first time, not how amazing this world is, but how deeply comforting to the characters, who have lived here for six years now. It's all part of the film's truly magical depiction of time passing; the perfect movie to introduce your kids to the idea that everyone grows up, everyone dies, everything moves on