Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Daniel Radcliffe discovers dark goings on in the bowels of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Kenneth Branagh (Gilderoy Lockhart), John Cleese (Nearly Headless Nick), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Christian Coulson (Tom Riddle), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dusley), Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Miriam Margolyes (Professor Snout), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petrunia Dursley), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy),  David Bradley (Argus Filch), Toby Jones (Dobby), Gemma Jones (Madam Pomfrey), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), Julian Glover (Aragog)

Another movie, and time for another everyday school year for Harry and friends: classes, exams, sports days and saving the entire population of the school from a grisly death. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it right? So welcome to the second Harry Potter film, that mixes the fun of flying cars and tricky elves with giant spiders and ferocious snakes.

Chris Columbus and team went virtually straight from the first film into making this one, and it’s pretty clear they had learned a lot from the last one. Sure, Columbus is still a safe pair of hands rather than an inspired director, but there is a bit more flair from cast and crew here. It also manages to look a lot less like a primary colour explosion or an illustrated version of the book, and more like a piece of film-making. Maybe this can be attributed to new cinematographer Roger Pratt, who gives the film a far more imaginative palette of darks blacks mixed with beautiful core colours (no surprise he returned to shoot Goblet of Fire). In addition, both design and costumes are far more adult and less Dickensian-robey than I remembered (though there’s still a way to go until we get to the steampunk 50s look of Prisoner of Azkaban that would dominate the rest of the films).

It also helps that the introduction to the wizarding world was covered so well in the first film. In fact, this is the last film where anyone felt it necessary to shoe-horn recaps into the dialogue, reminding us of who (and what) everything is. A particular moment of irritance for me is the first entry of Dumbledore and McGonagall: met with Harry breathlessly saying their names – just in case you were one of those people who didn’t contribute to the $1billion the first film made worldwide, or who hadn’t read any of the books by this point.

Anyway, Columbus got the principles out of the way in the first film so he could focus a bit more on this slightly darker, more developed story (just as Rowling was able to do in the books). The mystery of the Chamber of Secrets is more compelling than that around the Philosopher’s Stone in Potter’s first outing, and this is the film where we properly meet the series antagonist Voldemort – here played with a smarmy, casual cruelty by Christian Coulsen (it’s a shame this didn’t lead to bigger things for Coulsen). Radcliffe gets the chance to get his teeth into a decent final confrontation – and also the series’ first big action set-piece, quite well-shot with a creepy menace – as he takes on a basilisk.

In fact Radcliffe is much stronger in this movie – more relaxed, more confident and embracing Harry’s essential decency and sense of honour (the qualities that are always duller to play as an actor). He’s still struggling a bit at the moments that call for real emotion – but he does very well here indeed. Most importantly, you believe him and everything he does – which is quite something for a child actor to accomplish. 

He gets more depth and range to play with than Rupert Grint who was already being shoehorned into being gurning comic relief. There are few faces Grint isn’t asked to pull in this movie – and get used to that sad-sack downward grin, or the teeth-clench of terror, because these are going to become major weapons in his arsenal. Watson doesn’t actually get a lot in this movie, but even by this point it was becoming clear that she was pretty much a perfect fit for the character. 

The series also confirmed it had great roles for the cream of British acting – and that it was going to be a fine pension plan for most of Equity. Jason Isaacs plays the wicked Lucius Malfoy with relish and a scowling, patrician pride – no wonder he became not only a regular in the series, but one of its champions. He’s very good here indeed, as is other new addition Mark Williams, a perfectly charming shambolic dad as Arthur Weasley.

The show however is carried off by Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart. Branagh offers a performance close to of self-parody of his public perception, as a swaggering self-promoter, a preening egotist who can’t help but brag about his (almost non-existent) achievements and accomplishments. Branagh is deliriously funny as Lockhart, not only getting a lion’s share of the best scenes, but also bringing out some delicious comic rebuttals from the rest of the teachers – not least Rickman and Smith – who clearly can’t stand Lockhart. It’s a great performance – cocky, old-Etonianesque, full of surface charm and puffed up pride, but with a nasty selfish mean steak just below the surface.

It all feels part of the generally more free and engaging direction this film takes compared to the first one. Some of the best actors from the first film get relegated in screentime, but it shows the greater confidence the filmmakers have in the kids. The film really begins to introduce the ideas of good vs evil and the principles of friendship, humanity and love that differentiate Harry from Voldemort. Columbus isn’t quite the director to bring all this together into an epic vision, but he is good enough to deal the cards effectively. He gives it enough pace and shine so that we are never bored, though we’re also never wowed.

Despite the increased darkness and greater emotional depth, Columbus never loses track of the sense that he is making a family entertainment. He may still not be able to bring an artistic flourish to events, but he balances the light and dark very well. Not least the fact that the racism under the surface of the wizarding world emerges here. In the first film Voldemort alone was the villain, but in this one we first hear the term “mud blood” bandied about to describe Muggle-borns. We also find out that the wizarding world has its own slave class in elves (given a sometimes irritating Jar-Jar Binks-lite face by Dobby, a character with far more appeal to the kids than the parents). These are complex ideas – and all part of the world becoming richer.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is still in the lower tier of Harry Potter films, but it’s a significant step-up from the first film. Visually it’s richer and more interesting. The stakes are higher, the themes deeper and more intriguing. It’s still very much a children’s film, and it still inclines towards being an over-faithful adaptation – it’s a bum-numbing 2 hours and 40 minutes so keen is it to not leave anything out – but this has far stronger material in it than the first film, and is a sure sign that this series was building a foundation it could flourish from.

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