(All the talk of Harry Potter had me looking around at my old notes, where I found my original review of the third film. So I thought I’d include it for completeness.)
This is the best film of the franchise so far. This is probably helped by the fact that the book was the best so far, but the film itself is a cracking film in its own right as well.
Everything about it works wonderfully; the younger cast are growing in their roles and really look the part, and are more like teenagers in general; the mood and atmosphere is wonderfully evoked throughout; the humour is very funny; the older generation are a delight, particularly Alan Rickman and David Thewlis (Gary Oldman was perfect for Sirius Black, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the next two films); the CGI is brilliant yet subtle, giving the film the genuine ethereal element, where all the images and paintings that are supposed to move, move (like the wanted poster of Black on the walls, for example); and the director brings a sense of real ‘magic’ to the film, if you’ll pardon the expression, where Columbus only brought the Spielbergian sense of awe and wonder.
The film is not a direct translation of the book, unlike the previous two, which helps as well. A film is a film, not a book, so some things that work in the book won’t work on screen. The film follows the main points of the book, with Dementors surrounding Hogwarts after the escape of Sirius Black from Azkaban, the prison for wizards, who everyone believes will be out to kill Harry. The new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Lupin, seems to know what he’s doing for once – Harry connects with him when Lupin saves Harry from a Dementor and reveals that he knew Harry’s parents, and then teaches Harry how to defend himself against Dementors.
Everyone is so good that you wish there was more for them to do. The actors playing teachers turn up mostly for information roles, but it’s still nice to see them. Gambon is an able replacement for Richard Harris, but I have to admit to a preference for the latter as Albus Dumbledore. Fortunately, the actors in the main roles are all so absorbing that you almost forget there are others to enjoy, such as Emma Thompson as the simpering divinity teacher.
There are some great twists and turns throughout, as anyone who read the book will know, and the film moves at a brisk pace. However, the film also provides space to enjoy quieter pauses, and uses the Wheeping Willow to mark the passage of time in an amusing manner. Also, the film ends better than the last two, as there is none of that ‘hurrah’ end-of-school nonsense, but with a rather more sombre feel, and the two new close adult friends that Harry makes are not allowed to stay around to remind him of his parents. But, as The Empire Strikes Back shows, the ambiguous endings are always the better ones.
There are some great lines (‘Does my hair really look like that from the back?’), the romance between Hermione and Ron is subtly moved along (although I personally prefer Harry and Hermione to become a couple, all indications in the book are against this), and the film just looks so good that it’s a shame that Alfonso Cuaron is moving on and Mike Newell is on board for the fourth film. For now, though, we have a wonderful Harry Potter film for fans and novices alike.