Dir. Alfonso Cuaron. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson
As a lad, I was so certain that the job of a filmmaker was to be as faithful as possible to the material s/he adapted. I have been wised up significantly since then, but I have to confess that because of that particular foible, I was anti-Prisoner of Azkaban for years. With an amusingly auteurist perspective in my teenage head, it took an awfully long time for me to get over being mad at Alfonso Cuaron. Now, aside from what’s shaping up to be a truly historic career for Cuaron, it’s impossible not to appreciate this movie, adapted from arguably the trickiest book in the series to turn into a movie. Prisoner of Azkaban is shorter than all of its successors, true, and the book is a fan favorite in part because it gave us a break from what was already an awfully predictable mold. Yet the difficulty lies in working out the major characters. Given eleven years to miss his parents and two to mourn them, Harry (Radcliffe) begins to tap into the personal demons which wonder why he should have lost his folks; the face of a human being he can realize his revenge against, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), is almost a relief for this increasingly erratic character. Ron (Grint) and Hermione (Watson) have their first knock-down drag-out fight, or, more accurately, the first stage of what will be a knock-down drag-out fight lasting years, and it sets the stage for what kind of people they’ll morph into over the course of the series.
Cuaron (and yes, everyone else involved in writing the story) thus has to make a decision. Knowing that the change in characters must mean a change in setting, as Hogwarts/the Wizarding World are the true draws of the pictures and not these putrescent adolescents, and furthermore that the places imprint themselves on the people, the proof of the pudding is in the viewing. While little nerds like me were upset about the sudden proliferation of shrunken heads or the diminution of the Marauders, Cuaron made a more important change. Hagrid’s hut is suddenly well downhill of the school. The grounds are different, much more expansive, and more than that the outdoors can become a meaningful setting in the way they hadn’t been before. Cuaron has some advantages, such as a denouement which takes place on the grounds and the addition of Hogsmeade to the list of new toys. All the same, he’s got his eye on something different than Columbus had, and in practice that’s mostly effective. I like the expansion of the school as a setting: the glade where Hagrid teaches the kids about hippogriffs and learns a lesson about the malevolence of rich kids, the water that Harry flies over on Buckbeak’s back and where he saves Sirius (and himself) from a brigade of dementors, the encroaching forest that’s no longer a place to be punished but a place to hide from danger. The interiors are different as well, a little less concerned with the great hall and the moving staircases and a little more interested in the dormitories and classrooms. After Prisoner of Azkaban, the geography of Hogwarts was changed for good, and on the whole they are good changes.
I can’t say that I love the creeping nighttime blues of the movie which, bastardized, became the template for David Yates’ muddy pictures down the road, or for what generally has become the pathetic fallacy of movies since The Godfather: dark settings mean dark deeds. (My kingdom for a better appreciation of noir’s legacy: bad things happen in sunny Los Angeles all the time, even removed from the shadows, which is kind of the point!) Michael Seresin, cinematographer and frequent Alan Parker collaborator, brings a little bit of that grit one would expect from Parker’s work into this movie. The choice to put the kids in normal clothes instead of their school uniforms is one with limited returns. On one hand, no child sits around wearing his or her school uniform all the time, and there are an awful lot of robes on vests on ties in the Columbus movies. On the other, it does reduce the separation between the worlds in a way that, once again, David Yates would find a way to exploit for the worst. Other choices to weird up the Wizarding World, such as the roar that meets a housekeeper who’s very difficult to impress, or making Tom from the Leaky Cauldron more like your average Igor than a regular guy, are likewise mixed. This is the same book that spends a not insignificant amount of time on The Monster Book of Monsters, and the movie, more than you probably remember, is happy to linger on it too. It’s also a choice that just about everyone else after Cuaron walks back. The Wizarding World never does get quite as weird again, never feels quite so unknowable. Seeing those staircases move in Sorcerer’s Stone contains a tacit promise that the characters, and by extension we too might learn all the routes those devilish blighters will take. Hearing the roar and seeing the maid blown back a little in this movie is a good gag, certainly funny, and also entirely opaque.
The new actors they bring in for significant characters are wonderful. Timothy Spall for Wormtail is inspired, and Gary Oldman has grown on me as Sirius. Best of all, though, is David Thewlis. I remember reading one of his quotes (reprinted from the Washington Post, as far as I can tell, in my issue of National Geographic for Kids) in which he heard it from fans when he was cast: they wanted the handsome Jude Law for Lupin. But Thewlis simply could not have been better in the part, nor could they have found someone who would do a better job. (The reliance of this series in both books and movies on the effectiveness of the Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers as characters really is something to behold; this is an aside for another movie.) More than arguably any other actor playing a professor in this entire series, Thewlis gets a chance to do more than one thing. Alan Rickman’s slow delivery eventually became a kind of parody in itself, Maggie Smith’s charm shone through more and more at the expense of McGonagall’s initial frostiness, which I suppose counts for two things (As I’ve written before, Maggie Smith is the only actor who seems to have influenced the way Jo Rowling wrote a book character after the movies were released.) Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid is perpetually earnest, Michael Gambon never really does anything, Branagh and Thompson and Gleeson all have one job to do, and so on. Thewlis gets multiple chances to show what kind of man Lupin is, and he capitalizes on all of them.
There’s the good teacher who believes in practical applications of magic, and who has the gift of not merely recognizing which students need a little nudge from him, but how to do the nudging. He clearly enjoys putting the third-years through their exercise with the boggart, and is wise enough to begin with the much-maligned Neville (Matthew Lewis), who gets a chance to do something good in front of the class. There’s the man who is the closest thing Harry’s ever gotten to a father. His attention in helping Harry train his Patronus Charm, or, more importantly, the way he chews him out for wandering around the hallways at night when the castle is being guarded strictly for Harry’s safety, is entirely fatherly. Other men are paternal figures for Harry by the end of this movie, but there’s a distance there. Hagrid and Sirius are always cool uncles. Dumbledore is a little distant, a better 19th Century dad than a 20th Century one, and a better grandfather type than either. In the way Thewlis postures himself, frequently crouched over, we see him getting closer to Harry. After practicing with a boggart dementor, we see them very near to one another, obviously comfortable with each other. When he scolds Harry, he is all the way bent over so that he can say everything he’s saying directly into Harry’s eyeballs. And maybe this is only important to me, but how spectacular is it that Lupin has to walk with a cane when he’s leaving his old office, going off into his entirely uncertain future? It recalls a similar set of circumstances (though certainly not similar causes) that send Johnny Fletcher, limping cartoonishly, out into the street at the end of Naked. His work in this movie gives us the performance of the series, and that counts for a great deal.
Speaking of superlatives for the series that count for something: this is the only Potter movie which really does a good job with its final action piece. Aside from the obvious praise owed to it, this is also the ending I dislike as much as I dislike any ending in the series because of my general impatience with time travel. Prisoner of Azkaban sends Harry back in time with Hermione, who has been using her Time-Turner all semester to take multiple classes at the literal same time. Before this trip, Buckbeak was executed, Sirius captured, and Pettigrew at large. Because of the time travel, only Wormtail’s decision to cut and run persists. It turns out, of course, that the time traveling allowed for some successes in the original timeline; going back to save Buckbeak and Sirius Black is like going back to get a higher score on a level. Despite the fairly low stakes—shouldn’t they have a second or third or four hundredth chance at this if they can actually do this?—this part of the movie is entirely gripping. Events move quickly not because they have to, but because sequence demands they do. The images of the end of Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets never get much better than fine, and certainly cannot compete with the completed transformation of Lupin into a werewolf, arms distractingly long and thin, convincingly half man and half wolf. It’s a moment that jumps with both feet into the horror that Harry Potter movies, given a little thought, are immersed within.