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He will return tonight! He who betrayed his friends - whose heart rots with murder! Innocent blood shall be shed and servant and master shall be reunited once more!

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
(2004)

(SPOILERS) Now, this is more like it. If the first two Harry Potter moviees are exhibits A and B in examples of stolid, unremarkable translations of text to screen, Alfonso Cuarón contrastingly takes full opportunity to inject personality and style into Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. He’s helped not inconsiderably by a much more intriguing, effective storyline, one that incorporates the fake-out red herrings device of Philosopher’s Stone much more deftly and which utilises a time travel subplot in a manner that doesn’t feel like a cheat.


Sirius Black: The tail, I could live with. But the fleas? They’re murder.

I recall on first viewing – stressing once again that I haven’t read the books, and that despite attestations to their merits I’m unlikely to anytime soon – being preoccupied by what felt like important omitted background to the Marauder’s Map of Messrs Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs (it would only have taken a couple of lines to identify these individuals as Lupin, Pettigrew, Black and James Potter), and that the filmmakers had secured the services of the estimable Gary Oldman only to underuse him.


This time, such concerns failed to manifest as strongly; indeed, there’s a less-is-more quality to Oldman’s presence, in particular Sirius Black’s maniacal, raving motion photo on the cover of The Daily Prophet. Oldman embodies the cool uncle (well, godfather) incredibly successfully, even showering Harry with an expensive gift at the end, while also emanating a suitably dangerous vibe. Curiously, it’s the last role he’s really taken of that type, transitioning into more overtly mentorish, starchy, reserved archetypes (Commissioner Gordon, George Smiley).


Harry: Poor Professor Lupin’s having a really rough night.

David Thewlis is similarly well utilised as that sensitive, understanding teacher type who always elicited the best from their students. Although later contradicted by Rowling, it’s impossible not to notice the gay subtext to Professor Lupin as envisaged by Cuarón (he told Thewlis to play him as “a gay junkie”), hiding his true nature (lycanthropy) from others and resigned to resigning when Snape lets slip his secret (“People like me are… Well, I’m used to it by now”).


His alter ego as a spindly CGI werewolf is one of the picture’s few disappointments, design wise. You look at the Dementors (initially planned as puppets) and they fully inhabit the frame, spreading tangible dread. The werewolf is never more than an effect. With regard to Lupin’s post, being a casual viewer of all things Harry, it only dawned on me at this point in my revisit of the series that the Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers are the equivalent of Spinal Tap drummers, with a strictly limited time in said position.


You can complement Cuaron and co on the casting of these two – and Timothy Spall serving up a sterling impression of a rat – but you might equally regard it as inevitable that they’d show up eventually (everyone else has done or would do, and Thewlis was nearly in the first movie). Less successful is Michael Gambon filling the shoes of Dumbledore. He’s fine and all. Has the necessary authority. But he doesn’t exude a tenth of the warmth Richard Harris did.


The central trio – and their age-comparable supporting cast –  have notably shot up during the post-Chamber of Secrets hiatus, and their facility with the thespian art has blossomed too. In some cases. Rupert Grint continues to show he’s a natural, but Emma Watson is suddenly able to emote with a degree of naturalness. Where before she seemed unable to gauge her delivery, now her inflections are appropriate to a slightly snooty girl who knows she’s smarter than the rest but can’t suppress it (Kloves and Cuarón neglect paralleling her use of time travel to get ahead in the curriculum with smart drugs, perhaps because they’re still all a wee bit junior for that).


Radcliffe… well, I’m afraid he’s peaked in his artistic development by this point. He’s fine from scene to scene, and even comes across reasonably well when paired with Thewlis or Oldman, but give him a passage where he’s required to sob uncontrollably and, even though you can’t actually see him, he fluffs it. I don’t think playing Harry necessarily needs the greatest range most of the time – any more than playing Luke Skywalker does – but there are moments where you’re bound to get caught short if that ability isn’t there. Generally, though, Prisoner of Azkaban stands out as probably the best overall showing by these three, and I’d put that down to Cuarón coaxing forth strong performances.


There’s less material here for Rickman, who may have been wondering at this point if he’d get to do anything other than glower imperiously at pupils (why not, he’d been glowering imperiously for most of his career), but he’s given an amusing moment during the boggart training, appearing as Ron’s worst fear before being reduced to the object of mirth when attired in Ron’s grandma’s clothes.


Cornelius Fudge: Oh, come now, Harry. The Ministry doesn’t send wizards to Azakaban for blowing up their aunts.

Indeed, Cuarón ensures the picture is never far from an amusing or sinister interlude. The opening expansion of Aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) is Monty Python’s Mr Creosote meets Roald Dahl, the night bus has the anarchic energy of early Tim Burton, the Dementors-on-a-train scene is masterfully tense and atmospheric, and if flaky Emma Thompson in milk bottle glasses as Professor Trelawney is very broad, she’s balanced by the effectively spooky reading of Harry’s tea leaves. Ian Brown also turns up in a shot, and it’s nice to see Robert Hardy again; his presence somehow lends Rowling’s world an authenticity no amount of lavish art direction can buy.


Instead of Chris Columbus’ chocolate box treats, Cuarón, with cinematographer Michael Seresin, muddies the milieu, creating a green-tinted, darker aesthetic (in this regard, it’s curious that Guillermo del Toro passed on the picture because he considered it “bright and happy and full of light”, as you’d hardly come away with that sense; bullets were dodged when Marc Forster and Sir Ken didn’t want or didn’t get the gig). Following this thinking into the presentation of the pupils, he makes them a bunch of teenage scruffs who might have just walked off the set of Grange Hill. The actual outdoor locations help too, dispensing with the sense of comfort and safety of Columbus’ take.


There are elements that come up short, of course. Tom Felton continues to be fine as virulent, spiteful Draco Malfoy, but that’s all the character is required to do. It’s as if the rest of the content is maturing but he’s stuck in Dick Dastardly mode (only less funny). Underlining this is the manner in which he’s bullying and aggressive one moment and wetting himself the next (as if he’s never encountered magic before). The subplot with Buckbeak the hippogriff feels as unnecessary and extraneous as much of the previous two movies (this is twenty minutes shorter than Chamber of Secrets, and ten shy of Philosopher’s Stone). Until that is, it’s contextualised by the Time-Turner sequence.


Professor Dumbledore: Awful things happen to wizards who meddle with Time, Harry.

Back to the Future Part II probably springs to most minds when watching this, as Harry and Hermione witness early actions in their attempts to save Sirius Black (while saving Buckbeak along the way), but I was more conscious of Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes of three years later. I had tremendous problems with the logical progression of that movie, based on the central character’s conscious re-enactments (without wanting to spoil it any further), but this represents that idea done right (or rather, it represents this idea done wrong). 


Harry and Hermione don’t become aware of their involvement in the sequence of events until they do, so there’s an immediacy and lack of premeditation to throwing stones at past Harry, or present Harry successfully summoning the Patronus spell (“I knew I could do it this time because, well, I’d already done it”). More than that, the sequence is a rare example of satisfyingly weaving a magical device into a narrative; usually, a spell just tends to sit there, its effects summoned for all to see (by its nature, a deus ex machina).


Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the last of the series I saw in cinemas, and its stylistic boldness continues to make it stand out from the pack. Certainly, the fourth and fifth instalments tended to merge into one in my mind until I revisited them. The series wouldn’t boast a director as impressively attuned to both performance and style as Cuarón again (although, at his best, Yates is no slouch, but has become a victim of franchise fatigue – let him go, Warners!) and it’s a shame he wasn’t taken up on his interesting returning to the franchise (I’d be surprised if he’d still want to with Fantastic Beasts).



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