Dir. Mike Newell. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
The Potter books total over a million words. The movies come to nearly twenty hours. There are any number of scenes that must have been difficult to adapt for myriad reasons, but the absolute most difficult scene to turn from words to images is the chapter where Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) returns to a body near the end of Goblet of Fire. Twice already Harry (Radcliffe) and company have thwarted the Dark Lord, but this third attempt is the charm, as it were. The list of expectations is long, and contains items both simple and complex. Voldemort must, to some extent, be frightening. How he looks, clearly humanoid but never all human, must make him intimidating and creepy, a Nosferatu for this movie’s Millennial audience. The setting must also be eerie; it’s set in a graveyard, which helps, and around dusk, ditto, but it’s never just enough to show “graveyard” or “dusk.” The performances, especially those of Fiennes and Radcliffe, have to slay. Fiennes must sound as good as he looks, must use whatever makeup and costume he’s given as accents to his movement. Radcliffe’s performance requires less movement outside his face, but then again his face is responsible for the majority of the emotional labor in the scene. All of that, though, might be the case in any scene. Good production design, acting, and cinematography are expected no matter what. What amplifies the level of difficulty, and in the end what keeps Goblet of Fire from challenging to be the best movie of the series, is this scene. Voldemort’s transition from corpse to corpus is the event on which the rest of the series pivots. Thus we must expect this scene not merely to succeed but to excel. Without that success, everything that follows, from the remainder of this picture to the next four movies, is sadly anemic. (It’s worth pointing out that even in the novel, this is not exactly the pinnacle of the series that it ought to be. Reread the three chapters which this sequence borrows from, and doubtless you’ll find them long-winded, doing more work in exposition than they ought. Even the Reverse Spell effect, a reasonably new and vaguely tricky idea, contains the first editions’ most famous foul-up: Harry’s parents appear to him in the wrong order.)
The set is, especially relative to the rest of this movie, surprisingly lacking in a sense of place. Even new locations, like the bottom of the Black Lake or the hedge maze which hosts the third task, seem like they’re somewhere. This is just some graveyard, with a bare and conveniently located patch of grass where Harry and Voldemort can duel. Ralph Fiennes, and it pains me to say this, was not much of a choice for Voldemort. His body is wrong for this; Voldemort minces as much as he does anything else when he moves, and he never has the physical presence to intimidate. The voice is fine, if unspectacular. Fiennes is about eighty percent of what this role needs, but in practice that missing fifth is what would make Voldemort so scary that only a handful of people feel brave enough to say his name. Radcliffe is better than fine, and as far as his dramatic end of the movie perfomances go I’d rather have this than the rest. He manages to convey the feeling that Harry must have had when he felt Voldemort bend his spine to make him bow before the duel: he knows he’s going to die, and he’s going to give living his best shot anyway. The moment when the beams of Voldemort’s curse and Harry’s spell meet is indicative of a larger problem that the Potter series has…it’s hard to make a spell look good. What they settle for is an overwhelming green-red contrast, which is adequate but short of enthralling. The photography is not even adequate, dark but not threatening, not even evocative of fear. No, this scene, the crown jewel of this final act which doesn’t really have any great elements, is an issue. Before it, the third task looks good—like I said above, I believe in the power of this maze—and yet it does awfully generic things, so generic that it’s hard to believe that the people in charge saw it as an event in itself as opposed to a mere stepladder to Voldemort’s return. Afterwards, the return of Harry and Deadric Cedric (Robert Pattinson) takes so long to have an effect on the crowd that the moment passes; Amos Diggory’s (Jeff Rawle) grief is mistimed. Dumbledore’s (Michael Gambon) eulogy for Cedric is limp. The movie even ends downplaying itself. Hermione (Watson) says that things will change for good. Harry says, “Yes.” Not with a bang, but a welp.
What makes all of this so frustrating is how well the movie does on multiple other fronts. Surely the most excitement at the time must have been for Fiennes as Voldemort, but it’s Brendan Gleeson (who is a better actor than Fiennes anyway) as Mad-Eye Moody who shines the brighter. Gleeson is extremely comfortable with all the aspects of the character, from the gruff paranoiac who teaches the fourth-years about the Unforgivable Curses to the gruff and avuncular figure who takes Harry and Neville (Matthew Lewis) under his wing to the gruff impostor who can make the words “the Dark Lord” more frightening than anyone else in the movie. Gleeson is also funny, and the film needs someone with that kind of humor to puncture some of its self-seriousness. At the start of the of the third task, he uses his huge body to shield his surprisingly small fingers, which secretly point Harry toward the center of the maze. This is also the movie where he bounces a ferret. Other new actors don’t get as much time or leeway to show off, and there are a bunch of them to squeeze in, and Gleeson makes the most of the opportunity he’s got. There would be even more new actors if this weren’t such a good adaptation. Of the movies adapted from long Potter books, this is probably not the best movie but it is the best adaptation. As disappointing as it is not to get the final of the Quidditch World Cup, that must have been an enormous expense which would only make the movie longer. Beloved sideplots, like SPEW or the gambling misadventures of Ludo Bagman, are missed fondly but not necessarily as potential elements of a great movie. (Look for more house elf content in future posts.) The Barty Crouch saga, led by Roger Lloyd Pack, is likewise pared down for the good of the movie’s length while still managing to get across the plot elements, as well as a version of the Wizengamot I rather prefer to later interpretations.
One of the series’ most cinematic sequences, relying almost entirely on physical action and the absence of dialogue, is the first task. (The dialogue preceding it is memorable. The real ones reading this know what the proper response is to discovering that someone is about to face off against a Chinese Fireball.) Harry gets the notorious Hungarian Horntail, which breaks its chain almost immediately and gives chase to our hero. The chase goes around the entire school, seemingly, as Harry tries to shake the dragon flying through the bridge, swirling around the turrets. The special effects that make Daniel Radcliffe fly and this Horntail exist are in service of bigger concepts here; they are not the stars of this sequence, but its facilitators. Even though the dragon is far more powerful, its weaknesses are much the same as Harry’s, which also keeps the fight interesting. In one hairy moment Harry gets taken off his broom and gets it hooked on the castle. The dragon has him dead to rights, but can’t quite get to him fast enough. Like Harry, it’s faster and more adroit in the air, and its claws take off little chunks of shingle each time it slides along the roof. The sequence transitions sleekly through the magic of editing. With the crowd behind him cheering, we get a shot from his perspective as he closes in on the golden egg. Then we cut to that egg raised in the air in the Gryffindor common room, the music pumping ever louder, the cheering much closer and more personal, the excitement of the kids absolutely bursting through the screen. It was a triumph before and it becomes a greater one thanks to the cut. The intelligence in the emotional transition in that segment of the film is not missing later on; for whatever reason the movie can’t figure out how to make horror build on suspense or grief build on sorrow.
The movie is at its best when it’s a high school movie, which of course it is now: at 14, Harry is the age of a high school freshman. Future movies will function like episodes of The Office or ER with a totally bizarre reliance on “will-they-won’t-they?” (The debate about whether or not that’s an exciting format for television shows is one thing, but why on earth should it matter in a movie? We’re already here! And you don’t need to make us come back next week to find out, gasp, if they will or won’t!) Goblet of Fire is smart enough to put some closure on the romantic elements of the movie when closure becomes necessary; it’s also smart enough to remember that romance in high school is mostly cause for deep personal shame, and it uses that shame brilliantly. Maggie Smith owns a scene in which she previews the Yule Ball for her students, a showcase of her humor and especially her elocution. It is an alliterative monologue: “a lordly lion prepared to prance,” “behaving like a babbling, bumbling band of baboons.” And it is one which ends with her calling on Ron (Grint) to dance with her, as either Fred or George (James or Oliver Phelps) fires off an admiring whistle from the peanut gallery. The girls come out to the dance floor en masse, the boys stay behind, clustered together against the wall, and it’s one of many moments that completely groks the way that high schoolers are. The movie makes time for the Yule Ball as well as its leadup, and while it’s not necessarily a huge moment in the plot, it is essential for the characters. It is the only one of these movies where the eventual Ron-Hermione relationship is played for what’s fun about as opposed to what’s broken about it. Ron, seeking the status that would come from going to the Yule Ball with someone gorgeous and popular, totally whiffs. Hermione, who has caught the attention of Ron’s hero, Bulgarian seeker and Durmstrang champion Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ianeski), goes with him. At two inches shorter than Spud Webb, Hermione wins this dunk contest going away. Goblet of Fire lingers on her arrival at the Ball as she comes down the stairs, indulging in a frilly pink Disney princess dress, wearing her hair up, smiling because she’s about to reveal a number of secrets to a group of people totally unprepared for her to do so. The Yule Ball ends in mild catastrophe for our mismatched youngsters. Ron boils in a stew of jealousy, which bubbles over when he accuses Hermione of betraying Harry; Hermione responds, enraged and quite reasonably, that if he wants to go to an event with her he should just ask. Harry is very much out of our crosshairs at the Yule Ball—the movie plays that into one of its funniest moments as Harry hears it from Hermione without even opening his mouth—and it’s nice to get some time with his two best friends at their most dramatic and, I daresay, most relatable.