Dir. Chris Columbus. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson
The great strength of Sorcerer’s Stone is that it leaned all the way into making us awestruck at the Wizarding World. The great failure of Chamber of Secrets is that it leaves aside that sense of discovery which came with its predecessor. For example, a smidgen of the time they spend with that little Ford Anglia might have been better spent on some other way to make the Wizarding World, rather than its one-offs and oddities, engrossing. One can practically hear the producers saying something like, “It’s going to be expensive to make the car fly, but we have the tech and the prop, so we want to see it” in much the same way that once your parents buy you a pricey toy for Christmas they expect you to play with it. The car, piloted by a troika of Weasleys, flies to rescue Harry (Radcliffe); the car dodges a train; the car door opens and Harry falls most of the way out; the car is the Keith David to the Whomping Willow’s Rowdy Roddy Piper; the car bursts into Aragog’s colony, picks up the boys, and bursts out over the course of minutes; the car returns to the Forbidden Forest, and long may it remain there. Here’s a movie with a few too many action setpieces, and the car is symbolic of that inclination. Or take the movie’s approach to Polyjuice Potion, which could hardly be detailed so much in the picture as it is in the novel, but even so it becomes just another tool, like a chisel, to try to figure out whether or not Malfoy (Tom Felton) might be Slytherin’s Heir. The movie checks off the stirring in the bathroom, Moaning Myrtle, etc., and it’s never given a chance to really catch our attention. Perhaps the closes the movie comes to giving us that something new is in a scene that probably does not need to be here at all. Professor Sprout (Miriam Margoyles) teaches a lesson about Mandrakes (“or Mandragora,” thank you, Hermione) which culminates with her pulling one of the ugly little suckers out of its pot and moving it into a bigger one. Everyone else does the same, triggering a great chorus of AYEEEAYEEEAYE as the Mandrakes all scream at once and their ugly little baby faces contort. It’s weird, and the scene is played for humor, and all in all it’s a successful one that makes us feel like we got a glimpse into something that the rest of the Muggles don’t know about.
This is the longest Potter movie in the series and it sure feels that way. In its own way, this is probably the most faithful of any of the Potter books, using big ol’ chunks of book dialogue verbatim and excluding relatively few of its major scenes. Professor Binns, who unsurprisingly never did make it into these pictures, is the one in the novel who gives the spiel about the Chamber of Secrets to the kids. In the movie, that part is taken up by Maggie Smith, whose McGonagall seems entirely unlikely to burn class time on those sort of rumors, but one supposes her contract requires some kind of screen time. No matter who is monologuing there, it’s still a monologue, and there is very little that Columbus seems comfortable doing to ameliorate this very safe point-and-shoot strategy; one is not exactly blown away by his decision to film from desk height like we’re learning all this along with the kids. Indeed, there are few scenes in this movie that don’t suffer from this plague of too many words where exposition by camera would do us more favors. (I try to remember this movie whenever I think that a screenwriter might have done well to adapt more stringently from his or her source material.) Maybe this sort of straight-up adaptation would have worked better five or six years later, when more of the actors were old enough to spout this stuff, but alas, Radcliffe and Grint and Watson were in that awkward stage that the parents of middle schoolers know too well: they’re too old to be cute and too young to be sufficient.
The biggest loss in terms of plot is probably Nearly Headless Nick’s (John Cleese) deathday party, and what matters about that in the end—that Harry is wandering around Hogwarts late and comes upon the petrified Mrs. Norris—is easily worked around. Probably a greater loss is the general culling of Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), who is a wonderful comic character and whose iron grip on Harry’s life is unequalled by any teacher until Order of the Phoenix. Lockhart enters the picture at the center of a cult of personality, peopled by an almost entirely female coterie and funded by a series of alliterative bestsellers. He spies Harry at Flourish and Blott’s, announces that the two of them “rate the front page,” and proves his gift for holding sway in just about any setting. Lockhart weasels his way to the center of the fearmongering about the Heir of Slytherin by setting up and emceeing the school’s Dueling Club, wearing a cape and generally pushing Snape (Alan Rickman) to the absolute edge of his patience. He is the first on the scene when a rogue Bludger breaks Harry’s arm, and once there he fields off a “Not you!” from Harry en route to vanishing all the bones in that unfortunate arm. All the way through, Branagh plays Lockhart as a workout warrior, someone who has the physical ability and the confidence to dazzle but whose mind shrivels up in game action. In a series where even the adult actors frequently feel one-note, Branagh brings something resembling depth to this most shallow character. Lockhart is a coward, and everyone knows it, but he has just enough bravery in him to intervene on his own behalf. Forced into the Chamber of Secrets by Harry and Ron (Grint), protesting all the way, he quickly finds enough élan to snatch Ron’s wand, come up with a plan spoken in serious tones about how he’s going to maim the boys’ memories, and follow through as far as Ron’s wand will let him go. The scenes in this movie with Branagh are usually not much better than okay, but multiple sequences pale into invisibility without his color.
Certainly there’s plenty of CGI in this movie beyond the car’s flights or the slithering of the basilisk, some of which still even looks fine, but the great showstopper in the movie is the Chamber itself. With the greenish hue of the stones, the great hirsute head through which the supernatural snake can emerge—it comes out of the mouth, a clever use of what everyone knew about the Dark Mark by this time from Goblet of Fire—and the aura of haunting grandeur, this is a very good set. It’s never anything but a set, which is sort of a catch-22. It’s as easy to imagine what it looks like without lighting and post-production and all that jazz as it is to see it on your screen, which, especially in our time, takes us out of the movie a smidge. What it’s most reminiscent of are the sets of big-budget pictures long ago, although without the milling crowds one associates with Intolerance, or the implied might within Ben-Hur. In its obvious falseness I’m reminded of the sea battle from Ben-Hur, which looked just like a bunch of model ships floating in a little tank; I happen to like the falseness of physical models more than the falseness of CGI, and for that reason I think that stage works well enough. Some of the best shots take place down here, even though the showdown between Harry and the reanimating Tom Riddle (Christian Coulson) is by itself pretty talky. When we can take all of this space in at once in wide shots, it’s as close as we get to those initial shots of Diagon Alley or Hogwarts from Sorcerer’s Stone. A pity, then, that the movie is content enough to simply shift back and forth between Harry and Tom, giving us reaction shot after reaction shot and ignoring the possible majesty of this unfathomable lair.