November 21, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the forth film in the series based on J.K. Rowling's books, but the first to get it absolutely right. I enjoyed the first three films, and rated each highly. The first two had charm, and real human heart. The third was a visual sensation, and a generally wiser adaptation. Goblet of Fire is all of these things — but where the first two were occasionally cloying this one is sincere, where the third was pragmatic and drab this one takes the necessary beats to marvel at its own invention and find flashes of vibrant colour in the most dark and foreboding of settings.
If Prisoner of Azkaban can be credited with turning Hogwarts into a cohesive world, than Goblet of Fire must surely be credited with turning Hogwarts into a cohesive community. Where before the trio essentially existed in isolation, with other characters popping up now and again to fulfil their given moment of exposition or plot, now everyone is everywhere. Snape barely says a word in this film, as an example, but he is seemingly always peering over Harry's shoulders. Ginny Weasley is Neville's dance partner, but she also fills Harry's slot when Ron and him have a falling-out, and alternatively consoles or admonishes her siblings with each moment of bruised ego. Harry helps and is helped by Cedric Diggory, the Hogwarts champion, who is dating Cho Chang; the same girl Harry has a crush on. The weaving of the subplots between each other helps unify the whole. It also saves time. When a character is needed for one, they can be recalled with a sort of shorthand because they have already been established in another capacity.
As an adaptation, this is also the best yet. More has probably been lost from this book than from any of the others. But I didn't feel than anything essential was missing, nor did I feel like the alterations rubbed against the grain. The first film would have been better off with the dragon left out and the potions challenge at the end left in. The second film would have been perfect if it has ended with them all leaving the Chamber. The third film would have highly benefited from making the connection between the Marauder's Map and its creator; and between Harry's Patronus and his dad. By contrast, Goblet of Fire trims plot instead of character. The emotions of the book came through with perfect clarity, so it was all too easy to forgive when the details didn't. I missed Dobby giving Harry the gillyweed, but I don't think his absence hurts the movie; indeed having Neville do it credibly threads the plotlines even tighter. The conspiracy behind the tournament is substantially streamlined, but then it's really enough just to know there's a conspiracy in the first place.
This condensation — even of the big set pieces like the three tasks — gives the characters room to breathe. When a strange new man with a fake eye and a fake leg hobbles into the room, it is Ron who rightly provides the exposition as to who the hell he is even though Hermione is the one with all of the books. Since Ron's dad and this stranger both have worked at the Ministry it makes more sense that he would know. When Harry and him get in a fight, it is mined for the humour inherent of the scene but without disregarding the pain felt when lasting friendships start to sour. Amos Diggory is recognized as a blustering fool, blind behind the abounding pride he holds for his son. But that doesn't make his aching sorrow any less searing at the end.
Michael Gambon fails again to fulfil the expectations for Dumbledore that Richard Harris created in embodying the headmaster in the first two films. But while I recognize that this isn't nearly the definitive take on the character, I admire the way it plays into the tale being crafted. Having Dumbledore nearly as mystified and confused as our title character makes the stakes all the higher as the film charges along toward its finale. He nails the physical presence Dumbledore should have if coming up just a hair short on the emotional presence. Still, in a lesser film this would be a showcase performance.
Our other returning players are as pitch-perfect as can be expected, and Brendan Gleason as Moody is a revelation. He's not a perfect reflection of my mental image of the character, but he captures exactly the manic and unpredictable energy and even menace that Moody has to possess. Afshan Azad and Shefali Chowdhury as the Patil twins makes the most of their small screen time, brilliantly realizing their utter disgust at dates that turn out to be entirely less than satisfactory. David Tennant as Barty Crouch the junior has eyes and a tongue that are more disturbing than perhaps anything else in the film. Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort doesn't bring all the menace I'd imbued in the character while reading the books, but neither does he let the film crumble into the anti-climactic. His Voldemort doesn't chew scenery like I might have desired; his menace is lethal, simple, and direct.
The younger returning cast is the biggest area of improvement. Rupert turns Ron from a series of elastic faces into a character with real bitterness and sorrow behind the humour. Emma as Hermione trades in girl power for fragile optimism, in a take that has never been so courageously emotionally exposed. Dan has banished any traces of stiffness from his portrayal of Harry, bouncing effortlessly from moments human to moments heroic. Among the secondary schoolchildren there are some genuine surprises as well. The Phelps twins finally got a handle on the mischievous essence of Fred and George last time around; this time they attack the characters with fearless swagger. Bonnie Wright as Ginny steps up to her expanded role with confident articulacy, slick dance moves, and a sense of comic-timing nearly that of the Phelpses. Finally, Matthew Lewis turns Neville Longbottom from a lovable loser into a character with real tragedy and true courage. They, along with newcomers Katie Leung and Clémence Poésy, provide much of the wild and uncontained joy of Newell's Hogwarts.
The fourth time is the charm for Steve Kloves, who finally turns in a screenplay I can enjoy without reservation. Mike Newell as director brings Harry Potter's world some much needed joy. Roger Pratt's cinematography is spot on, pitch perfect; bringing the colour, light, and composition from his Chamber of Secrets photography and marrying it with the evocative motion of Michael Seresin's work on Prisoner of Azkaban. All of these elements come together for a smooth and grandiose ride, heads and shoulders above its predecessors. ()


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