Skip to main content

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).



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.