Sunday, November 20, 2005

Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire - Very British

The British nature of the Potter books has rarely come through as strongly as it does with the new Harry Potter film, which is imbued with a British sensibility, possibly because it is the first with a British director, Mike Newell. He has also brought many of the characters to life with more verve than the author herself, although one must attribute this to the fine acting as well.

The opening sequence is set on a moor, with a misty lighthouse, and a crusty caretaker. England's Channel coast has numerous such lighthouses, and the English tradition of decentralized adminstration means that most are under local control. The depiction of the aged solitary caretaker is thus true to life. The scene also sets the dark tenor of the film, with it's slithering Nagini, and rasping Voldemort.

The cut-in brings us to Harry's turbulent dreams, and the Weasley's cottage. The children have grown, become adolescents, and unexpressed romantic angst is the subject of the film. All the same, being children, the angst is expressed haltingly and off-target. Not very different from adult life, really.

One of the challenges of the structural form chosen by Rowling - the school year - gives us little opportunity to observe the extra-curricular life of the wizards. Apart from Diagon Alley, which is absent in this film, and vignettes of London, we get little insight into the Wizarding world. This film affords us some cultural perspective by rendering the Quidditch World Cup as a humongous soccer game, with spectacular effects and cheering crowds, confined in a Brazil-like setting, though unfortunately little to no actual Quidditch.

The storyline is familiar enough to readers of the books, although various sections are excised from the screenplay, making it rather two-dimensional, even more than the books in some respects. Most characters get barely a few minutes on screen. All the same, the superlative acting by almost everyone makes this one of the better films of the year. Michael Gambon settles into his role as Dumbledore. Alan Rickman and Robbie Coltrane live their roles well. Brendan Gleason (Mad-eye Moody), who we have seen a lot of in recent years, is a very effective and sinister character. Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort creates an aura of palpable evil, and of being a cold-blooded social climber. The child actors are barely actors, and nearly not children, creating a situation where fine actors are surrounded by weak ones.
Daniel Radcliffe delivers a great alienated-hero performance, and Emma Watson could well be one of the best actresses of her generation, as time will tell. She also gets one of the best lines in the film when she asks an emotionally confused Ron, "What's got your wand into a knot?" Harry Potter is once again helped along to a destiny of some significance. The film is even less of a children's film than the book was at this stage in the series, which is good for us adults.

If the director did not have to deal with Rowling's penchant for bringing in and then dropping characters merely to move the story along, he might have had the opportunity to explore the fragility of frendship or the inter-cultural conflicts of the Wizarding world. Occasional odd moments cause some disconnect in the flow, such as a dragon with a fear of heights and the abrupt transition from the climax to Dumbledore's eulogy. The dramatic force is weak, and again that cannot be attributed to the director's talents. He fails however to extract the psychosexual elements of scenes like the loved ones trapped underwater(discovering the unconscious self), the diffident adolescents unable to express themselves, and the hero trapped in a maze of closing hedges (think Briar Rose, the hidden dangers beyond puberty). Romantic tension is mostly rendered as banality. The only point where he ventures into dangerous waters, as it were, come in the bath scene with Moaning Myrtle, who puts in a tantalizing performance, and becomes the subject of much fan fiction online.

In all, it is an exciting film, if not precisely a great one.
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Time traveler, world traveler, book reader