Monday, 15 November 2010

From the archive: "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"

You should, perhaps, be made aware I am overcoming some major personal prejudice to write this particular review. Increasingly, the experience of discussing the Harry Potter films is rather like what I think it must be like to write for What Car? magazine, in that the product under review is all technicality, with precious little scope for artistry. The Potter franchise is by now a well-oiled machine, calibrated for maximum money-making efficiency. Any changes to director or cast is the equivalent of trying on different nuts and bolts; it's the character of Potter, and J.K. Rowling's holier-than-holy source texts, devoured by children, furtively enjoyed by grown-ups on trains, which provide the engine. (Those of us who object, or simply don't care, are invited to get on our bikes.)

Nonetheless, for Goblet of Fire, the fourth in the series, a pretty good selection of nuts and bolts has been assembled, perhaps the best yet. Director Mike Newell, about whom I was (wrongly) dismissive in my review of HP3, in fact turns out to have been a solid choice: if not a change of oil, exactly, then a reinvigorating new fanbelt. Newell is not an artist - which fits the franchise well - but he is a very able storyteller, capable of spinning yarns both light (Four Weddings & A Funeral) and dark (Donnie Brasco). HP4, accordingly, has more of a sense of shaped narrative, rather than the scenes-ripped-literally-from-the-book approach that made parts one to three such a chore in places to sit through.

This one actually has two competing strands: an inner story and an outer story. The outer story is the eminently widescreen business of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, which should already be familiar to lovers of the books. The inner story provides the more compelling business: the three lead characters discovering their hormones and coming this close to breaking up forever. Hermione (Emma Watson) is seen in several sequences with a new (platonic) girlfriend, never introduced to the rest of us, while Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Ron (Rupert Grint) have a full-on teenage-boy tiff. Ron tells Harry to "piss off" (which is shocking in the context); Harry calls Ron "a foul git" (which is very Harry).

The inner story does rather get in the way of the outer story - the whizzy peril of the Tournament gets forgotten about as everyone fusses around in preparation for a ball - but yields one of the film's most enjoyable sequences. Here, Harry and Ron, best of friends again, sit grumpily in a corner of the Hogwarts' ballroom, ignoring their dates' pleas for a dance - moments of screen time that work not just because they conjure up memories of school discos past, but because the scene forms something of a summation of the Potter experience for non-devotees such as myself: sitting on the sidelines, wondering quite what all the fuss is about, while everybody else seems to be having a high old time.

This is the first Potter movie to find time and space for those sidelines; the previous three, frantically attempting to get every last page of Rowling into a film lasting under three hours, were all clutter and action, all front and centre. Of the new performers aboard, to which we might ungallantly but not inaccurately refer as "the bolts", we have Brendan Gleeson as scarred professor "Mad Eye" Moodie, swigging from a hipflask beneath the mechanism that gives him that nickname; Miranda Richardson as a gossip columnist, wearing apparently the same hairstyle as she did for Newell in Dance with a Stranger; and The Constant Gardener (or English Patient) himself, Mr. Ralph Fiennes, who turns up as the devilish Lord Voldemort in an intense last-reel that dares to recall Lynch at one point, as Timothy Spall's henchman receives his orders from a creature that resembles the grinning homunculus of Lost Highway.

The franchise certainly feels a lot more grown-up with Newell in charge, opening with skulls and snakes, closing on death in a graveyard and - between these two markers - throwing in the series' first swearwords and topless scene (Harry, not Hermione). This may come to be considered as the Potter films' The Empire Strikes Back, and the efficient yet self-effacing Newell its Irvin Kirshner. The hope is that Goblet's inevitable worldwide success will encourage the producers to select for film five a director capable of running with this darkness, rather than resorting to Ewoks, or whatever the Potterworld equivalent is. (Where is Dobby the House Elf these days, anyway?)

To this end, I hereby submit for their consideration a list of directors who might have fun with the Order of the Phoenix: Larry Clark (it's not just Harry who goes topless, and it's not just topless); Quentin Tarantino (Dumbledore goes medieval on Voldemort's ass); Richard Linklater (he has ties to Warner Bros., and proved he could direct kids in both School of Rock and Bad News Bears); Gaspar Noe (tell the story backwards, for once, to shake it out of its rut); Whit Stillman or Hal Hartley (because they need the work); Danny Boyle (because he proved, with Millions, that it is possible to retain a distinctive sensibility while making a family entertainment that appeals to a wide audience). Failing that, turn the whole franchise over to Nick Park and do the remaining books as claymation: Harry Potter's Wheel, anyone?

(December 2005)

In retrospect, the author would like to apologise for that last pun.

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