I have serious doubts about Daniel Radcliffe’s non-Potter acting future, but as my wife pointed out at the end of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, he’s already been in a scene with Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, and David Thewlis, where he got to be, more or less, the center of attention. I’d hate to take anything away from countless similar scenes that have been a part of the Potter series thus far, or the fact that Radcliffe has worked with a very large portion of today’s finest actors, but that scene had to be a lot of fun. Now, add to all these experiences that Radcliffe will get to take with him for the rest of his life, whether acting works out for him or not, the fact that he has now been the star of a damn fine movie, and it’s hard to contest the idea that it’s good to be Daniel Radcliffe.
We find Harry Potter at home with the Dursley’s once again, and this time he’s fed up. He not only scoffs at the rules about using magic, but runs away with no idea where he might be headed. Our time with the Dursleys has always been the weakest part of our adventures, whether in the books or the movies, and we are thankfully done with them in short order. Harry makes his way back to Hogwart’s, but not before learning that the wizard world is abuzz with Sirius Black’s escape from the wizard prison Azkaban. Our adventures this time do not focus on any incarnation of Voldemort, but on Sirius Black’s relation to Harry, and the fact that everyone assumes he is coming to kill Harry. I won’t bother with any further exploration of the plot, because this is a movie that demands an audience that has read the book.
Where the first two films were pretty well page-for-page translations, Prisoner of Azkaban chops many of the book’s moments. Without a plot arc involving a main baddie to be confronted, the book was pushed along largely by conversations which do not appear in the film. Some are gone completely (meetings at Hogsmeade village), and some are greatly reduced (Harry’s chats with Professor Lupin and Sirius himself), but the end result of it all is that this movie simply doesn’t work well unless you’ve read the book. I’m sure it’s still entertaining, but much of the depth comes from assuming that the movie can quickly stir your experience of the book rather than recreating the experience. This is actually something I find to be a sound decision. As a small example, Harry and Sirius’ brief chat about living arrangements can serve to call to mind their conversations in the book, which spanned more than five sentences, and we can move on.
We do move on, and in several ways, the most important being that we move on from Columbus to Cuarón, and what that amounts to is a reexamination of what it means to be magical. For Columbus, what’s magical is dancing candles, bits of light shooting out of wands, moving staircases, floating ghosts, and living paintings. In the first movie the magic was showcased mainly by staring at it a lot, and hoping for Ooohs and Aaahs. In the second movie the magic was showcased mainly by not staring at it, hoping that having it ubiquitously scattered throughout the background would better create a world where magic really existed. This, it must be admitted, went along well with Potter’s view, and the idea that the magical world was first completely new to him (and us), and then progressively more common.
For Cuarón, what’s magical is the ability to subtly drive toward a viable, real experience of emotion at the movie’s climax, and even more interestingly, not being a boy in a magical world, but just being a boy. It’s an experience of emotion, by the way, that the first two films could not have hoped for in their wildest dreams. Because Cuarón doesn’t see the ‘magical’ things that go on as particularly magical in themselves, he bests both of Columbus’ efforts. He stares at the ‘magic’ to truer effect, and at the same time manages to create a more realistic vision of a world where the ‘magical’ things are the casually accepted background. Cuarón would rather take a long look at riding a Hippogriff, something not especially ‘magical’ really, but a lot more magical than most things we’ve seen in these films. Columbus has ‘magical’ movies. Cuarón has a magical movie.
There has already been much talk about how much darker this movie is, but I think this is, if not an actually false representation of the film, at least a lazy representation. The movie is not exactly darker than Chamber of Secrets, surely a dark enough movie with lots of bloody big scary things. It’s not really a darker movie, it’s just a more movie movie. Oh, it’s dark a lot, and there are shadowy bits, and creepy Dementors that suck the happiness out of you, but if we feel the movie is darker, it’s because we’re far more concerned with Harry’s feelings. As opposed to just the bare fact that Harry’s parents have been murdered, we’re concerned now with actual implications of that fact, and actually living with it. Dementors and shadows might be creepy, but the mood is moved by Harry’s confrontation with those who betrayed his parents (one, an internal and mistaken confrontation… the trickiest kind), and his (from start to finish) inner turmoil over how he can move on with his life. That’s not darkness, that’s just drama, and in the good way.
Again, the movie screams of moving on. Again, surely with the help of the director, the acting moves on as well. We may well recall guest performances of the previous movies, such as Branagh’s fairly worthy, but decidedly ‘movie for the kiddies’ effort in the last film. Emma Thompson stands out as the weak link here (and how often are you going to get to say that) by falling into a similar mold. The usefulness of Emma Thompson being Emma Thompson is wasted, as were many big name performances in the previous films. She is a big name for the sake of a big name, rather than being a big name for the sake of why she’s a big name. But, in every other respect the acting has made great strides. You would be hard-pressed to come up with an actor who less fit my vision of Professor Lupin than David Thewlis, but he was wonderful in the role. He and partner standout Gary Oldman apparently took a somewhat more serious view of their effort. Both of them, I think much in line with Cuarón’s ideas for the film, are surprisingly impressive. Of course, this is not what either of them will use as prime examples of their abilities, but several scenes stand out in my mind, and in a movie like this for any scenes to stand out in my mind is remarkable. To choose one clear example, the realism of concern within Oldman’s reaction and response to Lupin’s untimely transformation was actually striking. It was in some sense distracting in its own way that noteworthy acting should suddenly appear on the screen.
The rest of the actors fare far better this go around as well, and it does seem at least partially a product of how they are directed to act. Radcliffe, who had only marginally progressed from the first movie to the second, is worlds better in this installment. Though he’s still not great by any stretch, he is well into the realm of quite respectable child actors. It’s even better for Radcliffe than it might seem at first glance, because he not only comes across better, but he does so in a far more taxing role. Rupert Grint (who is growing far too quickly) as Ron Weasley is still not up to par, but he’s making strides as well. Emma Watson’s Hermione, previously noted by me as the worst thing to ever happen to child acting, is here improved to an almost unbelievable degree (possibly due in some part to a reduction in screentime). In one of the film’s poorer turns, Tom Felton, as Draco Malfoy, has his fangs pulled by having all his wickedness outplayed nearly before he begins it, crying at every turn, and being made to look hideously like Eminem. And, if there is one piece of advice I can give to those making the next movies, it is that James and Oliver Phelps, as the Weasley twins, need more time on screen.
Add to all of this the fact that the film makes wonderful use of its semi-sub-textual statements – time’s consequences in varied general ways, and specifically crossing the puberty threshold – and we are left with a truly wonderful film. Visions of clocks abound. Harry is inside one at a certain point, and we often whisk past its inner workings, or stand next to the daunting motion of its enormous pendulum. The Whomping Willow guides us through the passage of time with the shaking off of, and sprouting of leaves. At one point Harry actually stands at a threshold watching as his friends cross over and leave him behind (their crossover highlighted by the occasional ‘romantic’ awkwardness they discover that does not surface in Harry’s own life), where Harry is prevented from moving on with them specifically by his parentless circumstances.
I have at no point been a great fan of Harry Potter, but the closest I came was in reading the book from which this movie came. Easily the best in the series, Prisoner of Azkaban lends some purpose to the series, and explores the characters in a worthy manner. It also, as I’ve mentioned of the film, pays a bit less attention to ‘magic’, and more attention to magic. It will probably come as no surprise then that I was nervous about this one. However, it may come as a surprise to learn that I actually enjoyed this film more than the book.
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