starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Gary Oldman
screenplay by Steven Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling
directed by Alfonso Cuarón
by Walter Chaw There's real poetry in Alfonso Cuarón's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (hereafter Harry Potter 3), encapsulated in a moment where Harry mistakes a vision of himself for the phantom of his dead father. It's another of the Mexican director's magic-realism conversations about children coming of age emotionally and sexually, marking the picture as a lovely companion piece to his A Little Princess and identifying Cuarón as a gifted, eloquent voice for the rage and the rapture of adolescence. Opening with the 13-year-old Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) fiddling with his wand beneath a blanket, the theme of self-discovery unfolds along jagged, de-romanticized lines like the rough rhythms of an Irish lyric or, more to the heart of the matter, a Mexican folk tale, all of blood, dirt, and heroic fervour.
Notice a scene in which Harry talks with new mentor Professor Lupin (the great David Thewlis) on a suspension bridge that's established with a long shot of the bridge revealing it to be vertiginously, impossibly crooked. There are no straight lines in Harry Potter 3, a stylistic choice of Cuarón's that distinguishes this instalment from the highly polished sheen of the first two, Chris Columbus-directed films. Cuarón does for the Harry Potter series what Sergio Leone did for the Western: gone are the spangles and pressed shirts; in their place, conspicuously, a visual sense that looks coppery in the fashion of bleach-bypassed prints, plus the scrapes and imperfections that make the heroes suddenly mortal. When Harry loses his temper--something he does often in this film--people begin to suffer, and that rage, the accumulated baggage of a young man who's undergone unimaginable trauma and loss (Lupin speaks to this as explanation for why Harry is so vulnerable to bogeys that feed on despair), makes an awful kind of sense in the evolution of the character. Harry Potter 3 is insightful, patient, and brilliant.
The novels by J.K. Rowling are projected to cover the seven years during which young wizards and witches go away to magical boarding school Hogwart's. The first volumes shaky if breezy, with this and the recent The Order of the Phoenix, the liebström of puberty begins to seep into the narrative, keeping pace with the young protagonists as they grow into early adulthood. Such distinguishes the series (to this point) as unusually agile, the books' extraordinary popularity perhaps buying it some leeway as it makes bold forays into more serious issues. It shouldn't be such rare vintage for a film for children to speak about the fears of childhood, but so it goes, and Harry Potter 3 is brave enough to find Harry's moments of epiphany and his danses macabres in moments of profound isolation--to find everything that was good about Back to the Future II (the post-modern revisiting of Back to the Future) and fashion from it a tight, touching finale while exploring the exquisite puzzle of bloodlines with ugliness and satirical precision. This third film is this juvenile epic's The Empire Strikes Back. It's hard to imagine the series ever besting it.
Harry is growing up, running away from his sadistic Uncle's home after he can't control his wrath and deforms his aunt in a manner with which Roald Dahl would be proud. (Harry Potter 3 is well-served by a comparison to Dahl's best dark fiction.) He finds himself in a terrifying tenement after a ride in a ghostly double-decker straight fromHayao Miyazaki 's sketch pad, eventually finding himself back at a school experiencing a lockdown in the company of his friends and classmates Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint). The implications of a school under siege terrifying in the modern age, the narrative conflict concerns an escaped madman, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), and the hunt for him by spectral Dementors that appear to make no distinction between inmate and troubled teen. A segment scored to rollicking swing spun on old vinyl concerns a creature that takes on the appearance of deepest fears; another leitmotif details the dream implications of flight and arrested flight--flowers withering before freezing an indelible image of the sins of the fathers corrupting the springtime of the sons.
"Bad blood will out" intones one character early on, and later, at his lowest moment, Harry will hear his mother's dying screams--heady stuff for an American mainstream entertainment and all the more subversive for the way that it incubates in the warm womb of a die-cast franchise introduced by two films that were nothing if not sunny. Harry Potter 3 features a running gag of a bluebird of happiness disintegrated by an animated tree, the sort of mordant humour of the grotesque that also finds a chorus of children singing "MacBeth"'s witches incantation with a toad accompaniment to introduce the new term and, at the same time, the film and its themes. ("By the pricking of our thumbs/Something wicked this way comes.") And through it all, Cuarón finds room in his backgrounds for massive pendulums swinging implacably, for shots of Harry, abandoned by his friends, gazing on the empty school grounds through a transparent clock face. The idea of time being the crucible in which Harry burns is the backbone of Harry Potter 3, the bedrock upon which its fantastic special effects, its excellent score (John Williams in fine form back at the helm of another seminal fantasy), and its marvellous performances (Timothy Spall, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, and Julie Christie comprise the stock players, for God's sake) are built. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is troubling and turbulent as any coming-of-age saga worth its agony must be. It feels absolutely true, and absolutely magical. Originally published: June 4, 2004.