The Prisoner of Azkaban is a vast improvement on the Chamber of Secrets.
The viewing is especially rewarding this time for parents: this is a sophisticated piece of cinema cleverly hidden in a kids’ adventure. The protagonists are portrayed as credible teenagers, gently blossoming into adolescents; beginning to succumb to the nascent teenage urge to rebel, and (in Ron and Harry’s case) noticing for the first time that there may be more fun things to do with Hermione than copying her Defence of Dark Arts homework.
Cuarón deftly reinforces this inevitable revelation of forbidden fruit with his visual imagery: we open to Harry frantically manipulating with his wand (fnarr fnarr) beneath the bedclothes in Privet Drive. A huge pendulum swings menacingly over the children at Hogwarts. The children are confronted with secret maps and the repeated unlocking and relocking of various devices, mostly containing monsters. In doing this Cuarón isn’t taking too much licence: these themes are all (somewhat buried) in Rowling’s text; Cuarón has only really extracted an essence which was already there. I’m grateful to him for doing so; I didn’t really notice it when I read the book.
One other standout visual is the climatic scene at the lakeside where, eerily, Cuarón seems to capture the mood of William Blake’s engravings from Dante’s Inferno.
It isn’t a perfect picture: as both of Columbus’ attempts did, it hurls along at a breakneck pace (largely because it has to in order to get everything in), but this haste obscures the supposed timescale – what is meant to take place over a year seems (despite the seasons coming and going) to occur in the space of an evening – and certain significant exchanges seem to be rushed, and therefore lose their resonance.
A couple of other observations: Gary Oldman is surprisingly understated as the “villain” Sirius Black, almost to the point of being disappointing, and Rupert Grint (no doubt at Cuarón’s insistence) resists the urge to pull even a single Ron Weasley gurn. Matthew Lewis, who plays class runt Neville Longbottom, has (I’m sure to the production designers’ horror) managed to hit puberty six months earlier than anyone else, and now towers over the rest of his classmates, but manages to gangle in a way which preserves his affectionate goofiness. Finally, star turns to Emma Thompson, an acutely nearsighted clairvoyant (!) and Timothy Spall, who, rather as he did in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, hilariously plays a man who’s been a rat for 12 years. The screenplay writers have done well in retaining JK Rowling’s playful characterisations, and Thompson and Spall in particular have brought this to vivid life.
On this evidence and in Cuarón’s hands the Goblet of Fire, which was a great improvement as a novel over the Prisoner of Azkaban, should be an absolute cracker.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Runtime: 141 min
Country: UK, USA