Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

I was a bit underwhelmed I suppose by the first film in this series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and though I can hardly say the second part has assuaged my concerns and brought me fully into Harry Potter fandom, I can at least report back that it is no worse than the first part. In fact, it generally extends it down into the lower depths of Hogwarts school, where some scary creatures (thus bigger challenges) are lurking. If the shadowy (and non-corporeal) Lord Voldemort was alluded to a number of times in the first film, this is his first appearance as the actual antagonist, which makes it generally a stronger outing.

As it’s a film aimed at children, that still leaves us with the preppy and perky young trio as the leads, whose appeal I am still trying to appreciate, but which may never be possible at my advanced age. Nevertheless, the filmmakers have cannily recruited further British acting talent, this time emphasising the hammy, but in the best possible ways. Most prominently, we now have Kenneth Branagh playing, as he is wont to do (such as in My Week with Marilyn), a heightened and caricatured version of himself — or at least the self I want to believe is Kenneth Branagh. His Gilderoy Lockhart is a preening self-regarding celebrity-obsessed author whose cheerful pomposity is merely a cover for a lack of talent. And then there’s the wonderful Jason Isaacs fantastically overacting as a devilishly calculating Lucius Malfoy, father to one of the more interesting (because morally ambiguous) children, Draco.

However, for the rest of this (even longer) instalment, there’s still plenty of running about, doing stuff, discovering secrets and generally getting into silly japery on the part of the children. If it’s uninspiring in its details (those I can remember), it’s also undemanding on the viewer, though there a few little details added into the mix, such as the incipient racism trumpeted by Draco Malfoy, who objects to Hermione and Harry on the basis of their mixed-blood ancestry (part-wizard, part-human, or ‘Muggles’ as non-magical humans are called here, hence the portmanteau slur “Mudblood”). This is added to the first film’s blatant classism against Ron, ensuring that our trio of questing magical adolescents have at least our sympathy as viewers. The Chamber of Secrets thus keeps the story alive and moving forward, if not adding any greater insight into the trio’s developing stories, or extending the filmmaking skills on show beyond the merely workmanlike.

Next: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets film posterCREDITS
Director Chris Columbus; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Roger Pratt; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, Richard Harris; Length 160 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 21 December 2013.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (aka Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 2001)

It’s coming up to the Christmas season, so it seems like as fitting a time as any to kick off watching this series of fantasy kids’ films (even if the choice wasn’t entirely under my control).


Is this really the first instalment of a much-beloved modern classic? To be fair, I could have asked the same thing after watching The Fast and the Furious, made the same year, but I came to have an affection for that series, so I may yet come to feel similarly about this one. After all, the whole thing had largely passed me by (I was 24 when this movie came out), though living in London I can watch for many uninterrupted minutes the enthusiastic people who still, even now, queue up to get their photos taken by the really rather naff half-trolley in a random brick wall labelled Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross station. Until now, the only film I had seen of the series was the very last one (half of one, really, wasn’t it?) when my wife took me along a few years back. Well, now she’s making me watch the whole thing, and on the basis of the first instalment, I wouldn’t have picked it as a world-beating crowd-pleaser.

That all said, I can hardly deny it has its pleasures. For example, there’s an occasional sense of wonder at this act of wholesale world creation, even if it’s a patchwork quilt of various eras and designs: the street scene early on presents a jumble of different eras all smashed together with a Dickens-by-way-of-Muppets Christmas Carol aesthetic; there are grand old Elizabethan houses and mediæval castles; and a Victorian train journey peopled by spiffing what-ho Famous Five public school archetypes. There’s some great character acting in the minor roles; basically the entire supporting cast is made up of venerable British acting talent, with all-too-brief walk-on parts for actors as distinguished as John Hurt, Richard Griffiths, Zoë Wanamaker and Julie Walters (those are just the ones I can recall off the top of my head). Thankfully, we get to see a bit more of the wonderful Alan Rickman, truly a master of cinematic face acting (with a major in grimacing), and the underrated Ian Hart, both teachers at the grand Hogwarts school for wizards.

The main cast, though, at least look the part, even if Robbie Coltrane’s northern accent is rather faltering at times. It’s probably not fair to criticise the kids, as it’s their first feature film after all, but then they are required to do a fair bit of running around and recounting plot points to one another in increasingly shrill voices, so they do the best they can. Rupert Grint gets all the comedy pratfalls, while Emma Watson gets the best character, the determinedly swotty and self-important Hermione. For me, it’s the rather leaden dialogue that these characters have to deliver which is the film’s chief weakness, but then I daresay it needs to be comprehensible to a wide range of viewers after all.

Truth be told, even though I watched it last night, and despite its extensive running time, I’m having trouble recalling any particular details of the thing. It passes by in a likeable haze of familiar faces, referential set design, recycled plots and (I’m guessing, given there was still plenty of minor stuff I didn’t quite understand) in-jokes for the book’s readers. It’s never precisely clear what the stakes are for the characters, but it all cleaves to familiar storytelling tropes, so knowing precisely what the philosopher’s stone of the title does, or why it matters, isn’t really so important. And at this point, we know our heroes must prevail, so the key is not what happens at the end as how it all gets there. Thankfully, despite being slightly plodding at times, it’s mostly an enjoyable journey.

Next: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone film posterCREDITS
Director Chris Columbus; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer John Seale; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman; Length 146 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 17 December 2013.