Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Boy with the Thorn in his Side Who Lived : HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004)

This review of the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was written in June 2004. My opinion of Cuarón's filmmaking in Azkaban has grown even higher in the wake of the dull-spirited films following the third entry, and stance on the screenplay remains up in the air. The Azkaban script is certainly full of holes and missteps, but can only look like a masterpiece next to the slash-and-burn nonsense of Goblet and Phoenix. Either way, it remains a wrestling match between this and A Little Princess as Cuarón's best film.

I also note how very much I used to love parenthetical asides.


This school year Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe, hair finally as unruly as it should be), boy-wizard, is troubled by further ramifications of his parents' death at the hands of magic-Hitler Voldemort. Suspected You-Know-Who henchman and convicted murderer Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, dressed as Charles Manson) is escaped from Azkaban prison, and certainly zeroing in on destiny-confounded Potter. Little will play out as expected from there.

Alfonso Cuarón has eyes that do not see like yours, and the skill to make you see with them. What has carried Cuarón's films through their uniformly shaky narratives, is remarkable visual invention and sensitivity. This is not the same gift possessed by Tim Burton or Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Terry Gilliam, whose hand-crafted cartoonish visuals that proles call "eye-candy" match their cockeyed storytelling, cramming beautiful sets full of interesting design— though Prisoner of Azkaban is beautifully designed, to be sure. I mean that Cuarón has Werner Herzog eyes. Nic Roeg eyes. Every shot is infused with a sense of poetry that doesn't have a lot to do with special effects. He's right for this material because he finds a graceful cinematic language for exploring the material.

It is in the silent-picture style fuzzy iris-in that Cuarón uses as his main transitional device. It is in the observant light-play pre-title scene (the qualities of light under a white sheet) that turns into a giggly dirty joke (Harry furtively practicing magic under his covers). It is in the hyperventilating motion-blur of the film's closing scene, that puts one in mind of Zero for Conduct or young Godard: while the special effect of a flying broomstick was likely expensive, the decision to end with on a blurry close-up freeze-frame was not. Chris Columbus' charming but thuddingly literal films seem like expository bludgers as Azkaban speeds past them like a joyful Golden Snitch.

Cuarón's film is interested in weather above all, and for the first time Hogwarts and environs seem to be set in a hidden outback of the English countryside. Every form of precipitation and cloud-cover known to man are lovingly detailed. A whole suspense sequence is built out of Ron Weasley's hand against a pane of fogging glass. The late autumnal chill pervades and the schoolchildren's pasty white faces glow out of a murk that finally fits J.K. Rowling's melancholic vision. Rowling is an avowed fan of comic mope-rockers The Smiths: like Morrissey, her strongest storytelling tools are English gloom, ironic self-effacement and outsider's pain. Her wizarding world is rife with murder mysteries, ghost stories, and her hero's tale is primarily about coping with and growing up in the wake of the death of one's parents. To be fair, Columbus managed some of the atmospherics necessary for a cracking Gothic mystery, but here the entire landscape is depressed.


A Man Escaped II: Escape from Wizard Island!

The energy that binds the film together is about this feeling of confidence. Cuarón trusts that background details work better when left in the background (those Mexican candy skulls in Honeydukes, Lupin's spinal cord candles, or even the Headless Hunt), or perfect little cameos (the boy's dormitory consuming novelty animal-roar candies instead of having belching contests). Trusts that we can join a Quidditch match mid-game. Trusts us to keep track of throw-away clues with little reiteration. Likewise, the at-first baffling relocation of the Whomping Willow is to be forgiven by it's slight design overhaul (it's more sinewy than the ugly knob it resembled in Chamber of Secrets), and that it just works better there. The thematic maturation is in the source material, the storytelling confidence is heartening.

But... for every plot detail the film wisely streamlines, it botches another two.

Avoiding turning this into a book review, Rowling has set up an unbelievably complex narrative structure for her novels, in which every book follows the same rough patterns: starting at the Dursley's, a wild journey to the school, trouble with the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, with the Quidditch season, and House Cup competition, and an honest-to-God clues-and-suspects mystery as the guiding structural beams in each book. But the over-arch of the entire seven-novel story has to cohere. And we arre also, at least in our lifetime, caught up in the soap opera serial romances and political intrigues. This sometimes works, though in Books 4 and 5, Rowling's lumpy untrained writer's narrative sense is more charming than useful.

Rowling's far better at constructing a satisfying mystery than Cuarón (if there is further doubt, see every plot revelation in his Great Expectations) and screenwriter Steve Kloves. You might not get much sense of exactly how terrified the wizarding world is, of the Prisoner of Azkaban himself. Or the nature of how he "betrayed" the Potters. And you'll be hard-pressed to figure how he escaped from Azkaban. And you may be confused as to why Prof. Lupin recognizes the Marauder's Map, why there seem to be no ghosts in the Shreiking Shack, though it has been driven home that it is "the most haunted building in Britain," or why Harry's patronus is suddenly in the form of a white stag. It is also jarring that there is no mention of the House Cup competition, which was a compelling narrative through-line in the first two films, and that the Quidditch season apparently ends because Gryffindor's seeker wrecks his broom.

Rowling's strengths are story and character, but the movie's design team's got her whipped, hands-down for visual invention. It is her admittedly ace idea that Azkaban's guards, the Dementors, are clinical depression made manifest. The Dementors are realized looking like pale, rotting pumpkins wrapped in robes of moldering black burlap, swirling through the skies like koi tails gliding through water. Hogwarts itself, while fundamentally the same design, is exploited far better, both visually and thematically; the castle is certainly lit and shot to look older, used, and as if it could actually house a Chamber of Secrets. Constant revisitation of a giant clock built into the castle is a recurring motif that reminds one that Sirius Black draws ever near, prefigures a third-act timepiece-related revelation, and provides an unexpected visual quote from The Shining, as Harry, in black, glowers through the glass face of the clock tower like Jack Torrance over the Overlook's hedge maze. Azkaban also makes more use of the living paintings decorating the castle halls, a grazing giraffe wandering through dozens of frames finally leads us to the end of a sequence, just as a rolling crystal ball, escaped from the Divination classroom, unites another.

Speaking of that Divination class, Emma Thompson's turn as Prof. Sybill Trelawney may look cartoonish, but it's a one-joke character (how can she see the future when she can barely make out the present?), comic relief by design. And be assured, her moments will come. She's funny and grotesque, and the staff member that seems to share Dumbledore's daft and intuitive nature, and it is right that she clash with Hermione (the trio's intellect) and shine to Ron (the heart).

The entire cast seems to have upped their game as if to compensate for shorter screen-time. The Boy Who Lived mostly has the job of feeling increasingly persecuted, what with this the fourth major attempt on his life. Fear and anger pervade, as they will for some time, and Radcliffe gets to hide some of his anguish under an invisibility cloak, but certainly sells his most challenging scene, in which Harry vows to get revenge on Sirius. Perhaps inspired by his personal hero, Gary Oldman, or maybe just having practiced his craft, it's Radcliffe's best performance, and if his fine readings in the final showdown with Peter Pettigrew are any indication, he will be up to the challenges ahead.

Emma Watson has always been talented enough to play Hermione as not just smart and capable, but compensating for her mixed-blood background. Here she colors the part additionally with stressed-out overachiever snippiness, and the awkwardness with romance that all adolescents feel... but nerds feel more deeply. She's more attractive than Rowling's Hermione, which is happy for Emma Watson, but unfortunately undermines some wonderful moments in Goblet of Fire.

Rupert Grint's Ron Weasley is mostly wasted in the film as comic relief, and is waylaid in the medical wing for the third act. The character has more depth than has been explored -- his readiness to make sacrifices for friends, and his impoverished roots are critical to the continuing story. But his slighting in this chapter is only fair given that Hermione spends half of Chamber of Secrets in a state of petrification.

Michael Gambon's Dumbledore seems less grandfatherly and more like the most powerful wizard of his age, albeit gone slightly mad. I prefer his take on the character: Hogwarts now seems less like a project he oversees because he loves children, and more like a home for his fellow headcases of all ages.


It's time for 3rd Year Potions!

Gary Oldman takes a character that's a bit of a cipher in the novels, and makes the problems of Sirius Black's contradictions work for him. He's been tortured to the brink of madness by Dementors, guilt and vengeful rage. But when he does that difficult about-face in your heart, he's both lovable and still dangerous. It's the title role, but the Prisoner is off-stage for most of the show, so his furious charisma has to pervade the film.

Fellow new cast member David Thewlis, as mysteriously-facial-scarred new Defense teacher, Prof. Lupin, also does a great trick: he's not the Lupin we may have imagined, but delivers something finer. Too many tragedies have swirled around Lupin: his own, the Potter's, Black's, and now the younger Potter's... and he's exhausted. While Harry's met scads of people who knew his parents, this is the first inner-circle dear friend of his father's he has known . Their scenes together could have played like an uncomfortable Meatballs retread, but feel instead like two outsiders reaching out to each other. The previous films' depiction of the school feels like no learning is ever going on, and is rectified by Lupin, obviously the best teacher the class has ever had.

As any Harry Potter fan, I've got my own pet fidelity gripes. Two of my favorite characters have been slighted by the narrative compression. I missed that Snape, upon confronting Black, was both exacting petty revenge and taking a genuine, touching risk for Harry. Alan Rickman, looking so dour he's nearly monochromatic, still gets the best laugh in the film, when he slams all the classroom window shutters on a sunny day (for that matter, he presents my second favorite gag, a hilarious Grecian urn depicting a werewolf attack). The pumped up black levels in Cuarón's color palate have served Snape beautifully. Rickman's is still the best performance in the series, not painting Snape as a violent menace, but giving one long slow brood. But part of Snape's complexity is that he saves Harry in nearly every book, but they never go soft on each other. For all Snape's sneering condescension, he makes consistently moral decisions. I don’t believe these are fine points; I think that one of the story's great themes is that one shouldn't judge people by their appearance or immediate demeanor: the Houses will have to work together in the end.

I missed also the slow-build to Harry's eventual confused relationship with Ravenclaw Cho Chang, by forgoing any early glimpses of her. Cho has no compelling moments in the book, but why leave Cho out but bother casting a girl as Parvati Patil? Like Percy Weasley's brick-by-brick corruption, Cho's arc is supposed to run parallel to Harry's, and is about the nature of mourning and recovery. It will simply not be as effective for Harry to start noticing Cho in Goblet of Fire.


Yay for Cho Chang, the girl with the worst excuse
for a pretend Chinese name in pop fiction!

But I can't gripe for long. The director simply has an affinity with the material. One wishes Cuarón could stick around for upcoming chapters, in which Ron's class-struggle angst and Hermione's mixed-race indignation become increasingly important. His sad, up-all-night-crying Great Expectations, visually built in equal measure of Victorian decay and morning-light spring greens turned Dickens into a coming-of-age class parable. And his ode to storytelling, A Little Princess is a fantasy about finding personal strength while growing up without parents or being racially oppressed. Both prefigure Azkaban and the next two Potter chapters nicely.

However... the Chris Columbus films' obsession with canon detail might have done away with the unfortunate courtyard fountain, depicting an eagle fighting a snake. While Mr. Cuarón no doubt intends it as a nod to the Mexican flag, on Hogwart's grounds it would depict Ravenclaw House mauling Slytherin. Talk about your Unforgivable Curses...

1 comment:

Aram said...

Despite its flaws (and my own personal fanboy quibbles), Azkaban remains my favorite of the HP movies. Cuarón just seems to get J.K. Rowlings' world more than any of the other directors.