Prisoner of Azkaban: Megan’s Review
Jun 04, 2004
Like Kristin, I was fortunate enough to see Prisoner of Azkaban early. Here is my review (spoilers within).
Film Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Alfonso Cuarón’s film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban takes an important page out of the books. By dealing truthfully with human emotion and treating wizardry as the context rather than the focus, he makes us forget that magic doesn’t exist.
Immediately we are plunged into Harry’s point of view. We are in the theatre in the dark, and we are waiting; he is under his bedsheet in the dark, and he is hiding. Our only light is his wand light. There is no exposition, no helping hand – it is sink or swim. There are images, and there is action, and we are given room to draw our own conclusions – a technique that JK Rowling mastered from the start. Because we feel instantly connected, Privet Drive is so subtly oppressive that the audience yearns to see Harry leap out of the frying pan and into the fire. This yearning is evoked within the first few seconds by the Dursleys, who are not actively horrible this time; Cuarón seems to understand that it is mainly their passivity, their lack of extraordinary fire, which makes them smothering. Dudley rightly does nothing but stuff his face and watch television. Petunia and Vernon are not wantonly vicious, but motivated by fear. Highlighted against these lethargic and cowardly suburbanites, the character of Harry Potter shines truer to book form than we have seen him so far. He is quiet. He keeps out of the way. His sense of humor is understated. He turns his back and lets his emotions play silently over his face (Daniel Radcliffe does this throughout the film, to tremendous effect). By the time Aunt Marge (played to despicable perfection by Pam Ferris) insults Harry’s dead parents, we are thrilled to see her sent flying. And then Cuarón makes an intriguing visual move, pulling the shot away from the stylistically framed Dursleys in their narrow yard, withdrawing through a dining room that is silent except for the noise of the television and motionless except for Dudley’s catatonic eating. It is an oddly grotesque moment, in which it is painfully clear that a boy like Harry Potter can only be a frustrated alien in that unremarkable world.
Harry’s return to the wizarding world is a brilliant jerk through speeding traffic on the flawlessly realized Knight Bus, away from his surreal Muggle neighborhood and into the ironically much more realistic Leaky Cauldron. Cuarón treats the wizarding world as a complete culture. It is dirty and gritty, complex and well-worn. The first two films succeeded beautifully in bringing the visuals of the Potter tales to the screen – Hogwarts, Privet Drive, and Diagon Alley seemed, to many fans, to have been photographed straight from their imaginations. Prisoner of Azkaban takes this a step further by eroding the visual perfection; props are charred and rumpled and have clearly been around for a long, long time. Wizards and witches seem more relaxed. A sense of authenticity is immediately evoked. Even wizardry itself is now dusty and ingrained – in the first two films, spells were powerful, slamming forces; no matter what incantation was uttered, characters went flying back against the walls. In Prisoner of Azkaban, magic is part of the tapestry, rather than a showcased element. The twirling of a finger stirs a teaspoon in its cup; enchanted portraits have decided personalities; Professor Lupin need barely tap his wand to unlock a cupboard door.
Cuarón’s most admirable directorial gift, however, is that he trusts his audience. Because of this, Prisoner of Azkaban elicited real laughter, and lots of it. The first two films have had understandable trouble illustrating Harry’s excellent sense of humor, which, on the page, is almost entirely internal. To bring it to life requires absolute trust. The director must construct a situation, without commentary, and rely on the audience to know what is funny about it. So Cuarón does. And we get it, every time. Not only do we get the joke, but we get the satisfaction of feeling like intelligent creatures who do not need explanations. This sense of trust extends beyond the film’s sense of humor and into its rocket-ship pacing. We are suddenly in the pub, then on the train, then in the boys’ dorm, then in class. We are in the rain, following the Snitch. We are in the snow, watching footsteps appear. The film works almost like a flip book; scenes flicker past from beginning to end, and Cuarón never lets the air out in order to help us understand. Some elements of the story probably speed past too quickly for those who have no familiarity with the books, but ah, how much wiser it is to err in that direction.
For those who do love the books, this film is riddled with payoffs. Fred and George finally seem like Fred and George. The hippogriff is stunning, and the detail of its talons dragging in the water is somehow wonderful. It’s heartwarming to see the Gryffindor boys hanging out and eating sweets, especially since they are all played with new relaxed confidence by the young actors, who have been together on set for so long that their natural camaraderie translates to the screen. When the camera pulls away from outside their window, there is a lovely and bittersweet sense that we are silent guests in a very private world – that we are truly observing Hogwarts, behind the scenes. The Slytherins put in an equally good turn; Tom Felton bravely gives us a Draco Malfoy who is more spoiled and cowardly (and entertaining) than ever, petulantly shoving his schoolbag at an unsuspecting and none-too-pleased Crabbe (Jamie Waylett) and falling humorously limp when injured. Daniel Radcliffe takes on the personal nuances of the Harry Potter who jumped off the page and captured a generation of readers – flicking his finger through an open flame as he contemplates his parents, throwing himself wide open to cast his Patronus in a voice that causes chills – he is Harry. Emma Thompson, blinking owlishly, gives hilarious life to the airy-fairy Trelawney. Funnier still is Alan Rickman’s Snape, whether he is circling confusedly as a boggart or acidly insulting his old schoolboy enemies. Timothy Spall is a revolting, pathetic and sinister Pettigrew (I mean that as a compliment). Michael Gambon infuses Dumbledore with new spirit; his performance captures the whimsical wisdom and quiet power that are evident in the books. Even the “inanimate” performers are delightful in this film – the Dementors are legitimately scary, the Whomping Willow has a wonderful (and violent) sense of humor, and the Marauder’s Map is a piece of visual genius (the corridors made of handwritten spells are particularly fantastic).
Speaking of the Marauder’s Map, two standout performances in this film are given by David Thewlis as Remus Lupin and Gary Oldman as Sirius Black. Thewlis inhabits the character from the ground up – he beautifully reflects both the books and the backstory, and he plays the perfect guidance counselor for Harry: a faded man with a turbulent past and a quiet, biting sense of humor (“It is, after all, as you say, my area of expertise.”) There is a moment, in the first classroom scene, in which Lupin looks shrewdly at Harry as he prepares to face his boggart – Thewlis’s expression could not be more perfect. Equally satisfying is Gary Oldman’s maniacal, gut-wrenching Sirius. I wondered how anyone would manage to communicate the horror of twelve years in Azkaban in just a few minutes onscreen. After three seconds of Oldman’s performance, doubt vanished. The scene in the Shrieking Shack was the one I most feared would not live up to my hopes. Thanks to the dynamic between Thewlis and Oldman, it became the scene that made me wish I could hit rewind right there in the theatre to watch it again and again. Only the subsequent moment on the hill, when Sirius speaks to Harry, is more compelling – possibly because it will break the heart of any book fan who has read through the end of Order of the Phoenix. Bring tissues.
Of the three films so far, this one is closest in tone and character to the world in JK Rowling’s books. Still, there are a few missteps. Book fans will always have gripes, of course, but I try not to let mine be ridiculously nit-picky. Film is a completely different medium and requires alterations – and to be fair, in Prisoner of Azkaban, even the most obvious alterations are so adroit as to be almost unrecognizable; I did not miss the Firebolt until it appeared.
But I would have liked an explanation of why Lupin knew how to work the map. I very much missed Harry’s recognition of “Prongs” (the emotional keystone that had me in floods, while reading the book). I thought that one or two moments were unnecessarily over the top. And it is frustrating that, when so many of the characterizations are accurate, Harry’s best friends continue to be written below potential. I say written rather than played because Rupert Grint and Emma Watson bring enormous talent to these roles; they are above capable of portraying the Ron and Hermione that exist in the books, which is obvious because, in rare moments, they are allowed to do it. Grint’s tea-leaf reading performance in Trelawney’s class is very Ron. Watson’s laughingly careless mockery of Trelawney is very Hermione. The budding romance between the two characters is very sweetly done, and the actors handle it with lovely and engaging awkwardness. But in all three films – Prisoner of Azkaban is unfortunately no exception – Ron is very nearly stripped of his impulsive loyalty and his wizarding-world insider intelligence. He brings little to the table except jokes – and while Ron’s sense of humor is much closer to the mark in this film (Rupert Grint has excellent timing), levity is not the only trait that makes him indispensable to Harry. The most disappointing moment in the film is Ron’s weak reaction to Snape’s “insufferable know-it-all” line. His joke in reply isn’t funny, because it isn’t Ron – or at least, it isn’t Book Ron. Hermione, on the other hand, lacks the social ineptitudes that make her so real and is given more “starring” moments than the character requires. It makes no sense for Trelawney to call Movie Hermione an old maid – it is funny only in terms of Book Hermione. And it is grating to see Hermione receive Sirius’s final praise and attention in the last moments of the film. At that moment, Sirius’s focus should belong to Harry. We have already heard once that Hermione is the cleverest witch of her age – why twice? In terms of emotional impact, doesn’t it make more sense for Harry’s godfather to tell him that he is truly his father’s son?
But apart from a few smaller nitpicks (a cheesy line here and there), those are my only complaints. I’m sure I would have more objections if I did not know the books; on first viewing, the film is too fast for newcomers. But it is impossible to make a perfect film version of a story that is meant to be read. The genius of Harry Potter is in the books, and this third film strikes closest yet to the heart of Rowling’s tale. It is an enormous step in the right direction, and no matter its imperfections, this will be the one that actually sees the inside of my DVD player.