Saturday 13 November 2010

From the archive: "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"

Spare a thought for the traditional British pantomime. For centuries, it used to be the case that parents and guardians would take their offspring to their local theatres around this time of year to spend between two-and-a-half and three hours watching jobbing actors exchange harmless innuendo in between bouts of knockabout action designed to pull out the latter-day relevance in timeless, classic texts. The pantomime has been under threat for several years now, with audience numbers falling and theatres closing, impresarios being quick to put the blame on "more sophisticated forms of entertainment", reasoning the youngsters would rather play Super RoboDino Smack 'Em Up 2 on their Cubic Playbox than spend their afternoons shouting "He's behind you" and "Oh no, he isn't" at fading TV soap stars throwing M&Ms into a crowd.

Now that the Hollywood holiday-season blockbuster has become all-consuming, I can't help feeling the essence of pantomime has been sublimated into film - more specifically, those films released during the months of November and December in a bid to close all non-movie theatres down. This spirit finds its purest expression in cinemas this year: the harmless innuendo (which always did go over the heads of the younger audience) in the PG-13 rated Bond; the knockabout action (which always could get a little intense) into the new Lord of the Rings; the tendency towards an ensemble of familiar faces giving larger-than-life performances, meanwhile, now finds its way into the latest Harry Potter film.

For centuries, the basic formula of pantomime - the schtick that makes it tick - has gone unaltered. It's been amusing, over the past few weeks, to hear cutting-edge Hollywood filmmakers - chiefly those involved in the Bond film - talking like old panto hands, asserting it would be folly indeed to tamper with an established formula, and that the consequences of any such tampering (aside, of course, from a likely dip in box-office takings) would be unthinkable. Series helmsman Chris Columbus, similarly, daren't step off this party line; that's something you sense in every frame of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which - for its first half at least - plays almost identically to his debut Potter outing. There's the escape from dreary suburbia; a bit of business with the Hogwarts Express train; an early class in which class idiot Neville (Matthew Lewis) will make a fool of himself; a lengthy sequence of abstruse game Quidditch; and eventually - very eventually, over an hour into the film - some semblance of a plot coming together.

Still, maybe this familiarity is comforting, and it's not difficult to see why these books - and these films - speak volumes to children. In a panto like Jack and the Beanstalk, poverty is conveyed in terms of having to sell your last cow for a handful of magic beans. The legend of J.K. Rowling is that she wrote the first few books while living as a single mother in a run-down tower block. Whether or not this is true, it shows through in the abuse Rupert Grint's Ron Weasley gets for his second-hand wand and textbooks (something that's bound to strike a chord with anyone who's ever been envious of their classmates' trainers) and in the way Hermione (Emma Watson) gets labelled with the worst slur imaginable in this world - "mudblood", meaning of mixed (i.e. non-wizardly, and here subsequently lesser) descent. Despite the Warner Bros. production values, these remain films about classes, in every regard.

Last year, I made idle speculation about the fate of the franchise's juvenile leads four or five films down the line, by the time they should logically be reaching puberty. There's certainly a sense of the characters growing up here. Hermione develops a crush on new teacher Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh); Harry gets in a sticky situation on account of Ron's sweaty palms; and, indeed, the entire action element of the film is kickstarted when the two boys steal away in a car, staying out all night, and risking the wrath of Mrs. Weasley (Julie Walters). The kids give more or less the same performances: though Watson has wisely toned down the stage-school precociousness, Grint continues to gurn and grimace wherever possible. These, though, are Radcliffe's films: if he didn't know it before the multi-million dollar success of Philosopher's Stone, he does now, and he shows all the signs of a young actor seizing a golden opportunity with both hands.

The adult performers fare less well, too often reduced to spectators in the plot or relegated behind special effects; certain players display a tendency to do all their acting with the lower part of their face, adopting either a Blair-like rictus grin (Branagh) or the pained expression of someone who's spent several hours in the dentist's chair (Alan Rickman), which perhaps reflects a subconscious discomfort at having lines in their mouths that every parent in the audience will already have spoken aloud at least once. Few viewers will have played Hamlet - as Branagh has - but the part of Lockhart is being played out in bedrooms across the land every night just before bedtime. That said, the most dramatically satisfying scene in the movie is the one where Lockhart and Snape stage a spells demonstration in Hogwarts Great Hall, which begins in comic mode but shades into something else entirely as Harry discovers his dark side.

Still the most amazing feature of the first two HP films is the involvement of writer Steve Kloves, best known for the minimalist atmospherics of his directorial credits, and The Fabulous Baker Boys and Flesh and Bone. Both Philosopher's Stone and Chamber of Secrets are simply too long, and there's a reason for their being too long that goes beyond the need for a better script editor. A few examples of this latest film's excesses: Hermione turning into a cat is a reasonable sight gag, but it doesn't affect the plotting and slows the action down just when we want it to pick up a bit; Quidditch still makes no sense as a sport, because once again, the putting of balls through hoops turns out to be an irrelevance when Harry makes a single catch to win a game; and there's a scene in a giant spider's lair that jazzes up some exposition in the script, but feels as though the effects house has intervened to try and use up a few of the CG arachnids left over from Eight-Legged Freaks. And after all the mayhem, the plot is resolved arbitrarily.

The reason these films are too long - and there's every reason the remaining films in the series will be just as long again - is that millions of children around the world have now read the Potter books, and every last one of them will have their own favourite moment. If it's a no-risk proposition to adapt for the screen the world's biggest-selling series of children's books, it's then even less of a risk to adapt everything those books contain. The executive's fear has to be: if you leave out one child's favourite bit, they won't come back for the remaining movies. That's why there's ultimately something a bit cowardly about Warner Bros' approach to the Potter films to date, and why we're back to Hermione turning into a cat again: the effect is intended as magical, but entails a bit too much pussy-footing around. It'd be a hard heart that couldn't find something positive to say about such a handsomely mounted, lovingly produced and (risk be damned) comprehensive adaptation: as in Philosopher's Stone, the cast has been stocked in sufficient depth to keep adults interested, and the odd flash of true movie wizardry will doubtless keep youngsters enthralled. Just take them to a pantomime afterwards. If you can find one.

(December 2002)

[And yes, I can appreciate the irony of taking eight whole paragraphs to denounce a film for being too bloody long; blame the exuberance of youth.]

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