Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Review
In his third year at Hogwarts, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) finds the school on high alert. Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from the prison of Azkaban and he’s after Harry…
Prisoner of Azkaban is J.K. Rowling’s third Harry Potter book. Five out of a projected seven have so far been published. With this instalment, the mood begins to darken as it does even more so in parts four and especially five: we’re in the middle of the story arc, where things go wrong before they – hopefully – can be put right. And things are going to get a lot worse for Harry. This film assumes you’ve seen the first two films, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Sorceror’s Stone in the USA) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Azkaban, the novel, is longer than its two predecessors, but this is the shortest film of the three to date. You can sense a confidence on the part of the filmmakers, more willing to compress and elide parts of the novel rather than to try to fit it all in, as was the case with the first two films. No doubt anyone who knows the book backwards will complain, but the alternative would have been to make the film unmanageably long. (How long the next two films will be, I’ve no idea – Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix are both considerably fatter novels than the first three.)
Apart from the director of photography (Michael Seresin this time, following John Seale and Roger Pratt), the behind-the-camera personnel have been pretty much constant so far. But now we have a change at the helm, Alfonso Cuarón taking over from Chris Columbus. Anyone questioning the ability of the director of the very much adults-only Y tu Mamá También to make a family film, should remember that he made his name with a very fine, and much underrated, version of A Little Princess back in 1995. I’m not going to knock Columbus’s contribution to the first two films: he kept up a strong, if unvaried, pace, and concentrated on telling the story while keeping his tendency towards sentimentality in check. But he was certainly no stylist, and style is what Cuarón has in abundance. He and Seresin go for a much darker palette than before – the quidditch match, for example, takes place in a rainstorm – and uses some longer takes and tracking shots. He also avoids some of Columbus’s worst habits, such as constantly cutting to Harry laughing just in case we missed a joke.
Daniel Radcliffe seems more comfortable as Harry, though again he’s outacted by Emma Watson as Hermione and Rupert Grint as Ron. Hermione was somewhat sidelined in Chamber of Secrets so Ron takes more of a back seat here. Hermione gets a lot more of the action this time round, and the best line of dialogue: “Is that what my hair looks like from the back?” she says, looking at an earlier version of herself. (I’m not going to explain that: see the film!) Most of the regular adult cast really only appear as cameos. Of the newcomers, Michael Gambon wisely doesn’t try to imitate the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore, while Emma Thompson is good fun as Divination teacher Sybil Trelawney. Alan Rickman is solid again as Snape, though it’s fair to say that due to casting this actor, the character is more charismatic on screen than he’s meant to be on the page. The two adult characters who make the strongest impression are Gary Oldman as Sirius and David Thewlis as Defence of the Dark Arts teacher Professor Lupin, whose name should give you a clue as to his true nature. The Dementors might unsettle the very young, but some will be glad to know that the giant spiders of Chamber of Secrets make only a very brief return here.
Though not without its flaws, Prisoner of Azkaban is first-rate family entertainment and bodes well for the film of Goblet of Fire, directed by Mike Newell, due for release in 2005.