Up-words - Big Secrets

Up-words- The Best of the Paper Issues of This way up 2002-10

Big Secrets

November 2002

by John Connors

One of the most remarkable things about Harry Potter is how rarely his glasses fall off. Whether dangling perilously out of a flying car or being knocked giddy by a great big snake, his spectacles remain firmly strapped to his face in defiance of gravity. Yet he doesn’t really have to worry too much whether they do or not; a quick “occulus repairus” and they’d be right as rain again. Yesterday a tiny screw fell out of my glasses causing one lens to promptly plop onto the magazine I was reading and no amount of colourful words on my behalf could cause them to repair. I had to resort to a screwdriver and much fiddling about. So that’s why we like Harry and his ilk; they can defeat evil and save the day but they can also deal with smaller problems without getting into a panic.

Second chapters are tricky things and Chamber of Secrets is really a bridge between the opening of this new magical world and the darker stories that start to unfurl from the third book. In some ways it is basically a broader version of its predecessor so it isn’t too surprising how soon the wider public have hit that `oh, it’s Voldemort again` barrier` but once you get over that, only then does the wonder of the Potter story start to spring to life. Simply waiting for the climax of each book (or film) with baited breath is not the point; it’s the journey by which you get there that counts.

Harry is spending another summer at the Dursleys, wondering why his friends haven’t written to him (no computers to spoil this story) though at least he has a room this time instead of a cupboard. Then, a house elf called Dobby warns him not to go back to Hogwarts lest danger befall him and when the boy shows no signs of heading the warning; Dobby makes mischief with a cake before vanishing. Uncle Vernon promptly seals him in his room until the Weasleys rescue him in a flying Ford Anglia car. This portion of the film is nicely done; the Dursleys are cartoonish and grotesque characters who is on screen time needs to be limited and this is effectively achieved, not for the last time a little extra comic mileage is added to the book; Vernon’s fall from the window seals the scene perfectly. Dobby is CGI but thanks to an expressively rendered face and amusing rather than grating vocals is certainly a welcome addition to the proceedings.

We then catch glimpses of the Weasley family cottage; here Daniel Radcliffe starts to show just how much he’s improved from the first film as he eyes the house and it’s gimmicks and then it’s off to Diagon Alley courtesy of Floo powder and a quip I found funnier than anyone else in the cinema. Unfortunately little is made of Harry’s Knockturn Alley detour; like the first film, the writers seem anxious to avoid too many confrontations with the Malfoys and this also means that the giant ruckus that breaks out in Flourish and Blotts in the book is reduced to some stares. A shame cos the whole bit about Malfoy putting the diary in Ginny’s basket gets lost here and there just isn’t enough dialogue amidst the staring. I’m not sure about Jason Isaacs either; he lacks the steely malevolence I was expecting from Lucius Malfoy and his hair is ridiculous (I know that’s saying something in this film but Rowling’s original description is not really met here).

The film’s first set piece is the car flight to Hogwarts. Unable to get through the barrier to platform nine and three quarters Harry and Ron resort to using the Ford Anglia and in an exhilarating sequence Chris Colombus and co add to a scene that passes almost as a means to an end in the book. Here, it is quite rightly expanded to include a moment when they can’t see the train and it lurches up behind them whereupon when pulling the car upwards, Harry falls out and is hanging out of the open door in mid air! The effects are certainly much better all round this time and the impressive thing about his sequence – and the later Quidditch match – is the broad daylight doesn’t show up any blurring. The whomping willow sequence is very effective too, largely due to the sound effects utilised that make the attacking tree sound thunderous and very dangerous indeed.

"I don't think this review has enough about ME!!"
As they settle back into Hogwarts life, a series of attacks leaves pupils literally Petrified (done well too; did they really freeze the actors!?) while Harry starts to hear voices coming from the walls. We also get another Quidditch match; again the book is outdone by the addition of a thrilling chase underneath the bleachers as the rogue bludger pursues Harry while he races Malfoy for the Snitch. This is driving, edge of seat stuff and it’s a pity the scene doesn’t occur later on as it is probably the bit most non Potterfiles will enjoy the most.

By now the cast are starting to make an impression and it’s Kenneth Branagh who snags the prime part this time round. He’s perfect casting as the narcissistic Gilderoy Lockhart preening about the place showing his pearly white teeth at every opportunity and quite funny he is too, especially when Lockhart’s true nature is revealed. With the kids more centre stage there is less chance for the starry adults to shine; at times you do feel they are being wheeled on for a turn each, an impression not helped by one of the kids saying their names each time they meet. Nevertheless Richard Harris does twinkle enigmatically as Dumbledore and will be harder to adequately replace than people think.

Inevitably parts of the book are truncated to fit the running time and Nearly Headless Nick’s Deathday party is cut altogether but rather more disappointing is that the script writers decided not to go into any of Rowling’s musings on fame and celebrity. In the book there are a few incidents where Harry appears to others to be intent on pushing his celebrity and this ties in well with Lockhart’s abuse of it. Even more importantly, when Harry appears to control a snake to attack another pupil, the students’ reaction, which simmers for a while in the book, is forgotten five minutes later. Considering it was established at the very start that Harry is already famous, why back away from discussing this now?

It also makes Colin Creevey’s continual photo taking look pointless when in the book his hero worship of Harry was an interesting sidebar to the issue. Anyway I was pleased to see they did leave in the polyjuice potion which adds a bit more humour as Harry and Ron `become` Draco Malfoy’s mates Crabbe and Goyle for an hour. Even more than in the book, the film does show up one weakness in the tale; exactly what Draco is for. Yes, he provides a bully type character in the first book/film but as evidenced by their sneering exchange before the duel, Harry is no longer intimidated by him and I think Draco needs to be brought closer to the centre of things. You can’t have a nasty character if he drops away in the second half of each story; it renders him less effective each time.

The movie's latter half is pivoted around two brilliant sequences. Firstly, Harry and Ron in the den of spiders is scarier than in some of some spider films I’ve seen; the eight legs themselves are rattlingly dangerous looking and the pace of their pursuit of the kids is gripping. Later, in the chamber of secrets itself there is the Basilisk, which looks powerful, and a far better climax ensues than the first films rather short one. As Tom Riddle, Christian Coulson just about manages to get across the contempt of the character but he lacks the sheer nastiness of poor Tom Felton who gets to sit out the climax again. The last 20 minutes also miss Emma Watson, whose sparky Hermione is always a highlight.

Daniel Radcliffe has matured considerably as an actor and he really grabs this film properly coming over as more traditionally heroic and less humble than the book version while Rupert Grint’s comedic skills are once again used to lighten moments of tension and add a recognisably normal character into the mix though he is starting to overdo that expression of disgust a bit!

Undoubtedly this is a better film than the first, but in some ways it is not quite as good an adaptation. While the bits added are all successful expansions of Rowling’s own vividly imagined action sequences, it’s what’s missing that shows something of a misunderstanding of what drives this story along. The school timetables have perhaps understandably been abandoned, but there is nary a mention of how Harry, Ron and Hermione have to sneak about under prefects and teachers’ watchful eyes, instead it looks like they have the run of the place. Qudditch is used to frame a terrific action piece but no more while the rivalry between Messrs Weasley and Malfoy senior is understated too. More important even than this, Ginny is left as such a sideline that we have actually forgotten about her by the time she’s kidnapped and this underlines the way Harry is treated as a central hero character but nothing more.

 In the books, we see the story from his perspective and Rowling wrote Creevey, Ginny and Lockhart to offer different views of how Harry treats his fame and his past but the subtlety of this is lost in the film. Where it not an important part of Harry’s development as a character it wouldn’t matter but this is no James Bond franchise where the re-set button is pressed at the end of each film. I also missed the ritual of the school, brought to life so beautifully in the first film; I’m not advocating repetition but in the books Rowling manages to weave it all in nonetheless.

That said, it does all work well as film and contains much more excitement, dynamism and humour than its predecessor. Plus it leaves you gasping for more and that can only be a good thing.

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