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Kino Korner June 10, 2004
Hogwarts without the Warts
By John Dolan Browse author Email

When a Harry Potter movie comes to Moscow, Mark always passes the chore of reviewing it to me. He'll take almost any hit for the team -- he's reviewed films with Meg Ryan in them, and men have won the Congressional Medal of Honor for less. But he draws the line at the Potter films.

Whereas I seem to like them. And I liked this one, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Adzharia, best of all. This heretical judgment could easily get me branded with a "B" (for "Beigeocrat") and expelled from the eXile's proud ranks -- but the truth has rights, and the truth is that this is a very good movie. Alas.

"Alas" because almost every nuance of Rowling's Potter books is vile. Starting with the fact that, as I said in a book review years ago, Rowling stole the whole schtick of bringing magic to the English suburbs from a much better writer, Diana Wynne Jones, who'd been writing wonderful fantasy novels for decades without attaining even a fraction of Rowling's wealth and fame.

Then there's Rowling's idealization of the English public school, an institution designed to teach its victims first to endure, and eventually to inflict, as much pain as possible. Potter's school, Hogwarts, is Eton with all its warts removed -- and since Eton and its ilk consist entirely of warts, that doesn't leave much. Hogwarts is co-ed (though there seem to be far fewer girls than boys), multi-ethnic and at least superficially egalitarian. The bullies are a trio of hopeless cowards, a few bad apples in a bunch of really nice folks.

So why don't we just stipulate, as the lawyers say, that Rowling is an ideological enemy. There remains the fact that this movie has a complex but clear plot, a new crop of interesting and sometimes scary monsters, and a nice twist in its tail.

The bestiary for this film is great: flying corpses who suck the life out of anyone they can catch, a falcon/horse crossbreed, and a bird-eating tree that does its best to kill Harry and friends and steals several scenes from them instead.

A lot of reviewers have gone on about how it was the producers' brilliant decision to hire a Mexican director, Alfonso Cuaron, that gives the film its supposedly darker and more edgy feel. Cuaron deserves credit for a good film, but it's just not true that he introduced a darker tone to the Potter movies. The second Potter film, which I reviewed two years ago, was far darker than any American kiddie film will ever be. There's a five-minute scene in that film featuring a visit to the lair of the giant spider that had me flinching for weeks.

It's not the Mexicans but the English who deserve credit for offering the kiddies real terrors in these movies. They've always been willing, not to say eager, to terrorise the little brats -- and after all, that's what any decent little brat wants. These are the people who made The Office. They don't need lessons in keepin' it grim. They invented grim, for God's sake.

The cast of this movie includes some of the best grim-faced actors around. Start with Alan Rickman, with his permanent sneer and sarcastic monotone. Then there's David Thewlis, who did such a fantastic job in Naked. Thewlis, playing a Master who loves the night life, looks, dresses and sounds like a computer-aged Richard Reeve. (If you don't know Richard Reeve, go brush up on your contemporary literature.) And just when you think they've already brought on every snarl-specialist in British cinema, on comes Gary Oldman as the escaped convict Sirius Black, screeching and writhing like he did in the good old days.

With actors like this playing them, Hogwarts's teachers pretty much steal the show from Harry and the other pupils this time around. The bitter hatreds and suspicion of every academic corridor are brought to life very convincingly, via a series of visual metaphors that make the point quickly and unobtrusively. Even the hallway portraits of past professors get involved in the arguments -- and Rowling's school-story commonplaces (that were mouldy back when P. G. Wodehouse was starting his career) are mercifully reduced to make room. For starters, Quidditch, if that's the way you spell Hogwarts's 3-D rugby, hardly features in this film. When Harry takes his broom up into the cloud cover to catch the golden fly or whatever it is, he meets the Dementers, very grown-up monsters -- bulbous-headed corpses in ragged shrouds. They don't talk, have no soft side, and aren't won over by Harry's fetal/tweedy charm. They want to kill him, and they nearly succeed. The aerial rugby game ends with Harry free-falling several thousand meters. Every right-thinking, PE-hating nerd kid in the audience must have savored that replay in their heads for days afterwards.

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