Dog Star Man
Sometimes low-budget and art-house films have more of an influence on mainstream and genre cinema than you might think. Consider the kitchen-sink, realist (some might say miserabilist), socially-engaged films made by people like Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke in the UK over the last twenty years, films like Meantime, Made in Britain, Naked and Life is Sweet. Consider the generation of outstanding British actors these films have made famous - performers like Gary Oldman, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, and Tim Roth. Now consider what all these high-powered thesps are currently doing with their time!
Yes folks, it's a review of another Harry Potter movie, in which nearly all of the above pop up - and had Tim Roth not turned a recurring role in the franchise down in favour of doing Planet of the Apes we would have had the full set. I must confess to having felt merely whelmed at the prospect of the latest installment, Prisoner of Azkaban, mostly due to the bland overfaithfulness of the first two films (and the frankly alarming behaviour of some of the more fanatically zealous Potterphiles). But, freed of its previous role as warm-up act for Lord of the Rings, and with new director Alfonso Cuaron at the wheel, the series has taken a quantum leap forward.
It kicks off in ominously familiar style, with the Dursleys being beastly to Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), before the whole back-to-school routine begins once more. The appalling danger facing our hero and his chums (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) this time round is all to do with disturbed wizard Sirius Black (Oldman) who has escaped from the magical prison Azkaban and is determined to track Harry down...
To be honest, on paper the plot doesn't have much to distinguish itself from that of the first two films, it's the same mixture of intrigue, imagination and humour, with a few twists along the way. And in many ways this film is much like its predecessors. As noted at the top of the page, this series has the ability to attract a truly stellar cast for even quite small roles (one suspects many of them have their arms twisted by their kids). The regular cast (Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, Mark Williams, Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, Alan Rickman) all show up once more, and this time round they are joined by Oldman, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, Robert Hardy, Lenny Henry, Julie Christie, Michael Gambon, and Emma Thompson (who hams it up something chronic), to name but most of them (and I swear I saw Ian Brown from The Stone Roses as an extra in one scene). Presumably the producers have squads of hunters out looking for Jim Broadbent and Judi Dench, who seem to be about the only two classically trained British film stars yet to have appeared in this series. Admittedly some of these people have very tiny parts (the fourth-billed Christie has about three lines), but in way that's almost more impressive. The key parts are uniformly well-performed, and Gambon replaces the late Richard Harris well, giving the character a slightly distant, slippery quality that bodes well for future appearances.
Of course, all the Potter movies have been all-star-cast affairs but what's new this time is a welcome change in focus and direction. Steve Kloves' script is commendably ruthless in the way it hacks back the text to produce a focussed and pacy script that never drags or outstays its welcome. Admittedly there are a few loose ends come the final credits and some of the exposition is a little shaky but probably only people who already know the story will notice this.
But the success of Prisoner of Azkaban is largely down to Alfonso Cuaron's direction. Cuaron knows how to give a film atmosphere, as is obvious from the slightly Time Bandits-esque opening. He gives the real world scenes real grit, the ones in Hogwarts and elsewhere a genuine sense of wonder, and the contrast between the two has never been so striking or effective. It's invidious to make comparisons, but it's probably impossible now to make a big-budget fantasy film without setting yourself up against Peter Jackson's mighty trilogy - and Cuaron acquits himself well, particularly in the sequences featuring the spectral Dementors. Their grim presence seems to have bled out and given the rest of the movie a rather chilly atmosphere (ironic, given this is the first Potter movie not to get a Christmas release). But there's warmth and humour here as well as bleakness, with inventive and funny jokes and visual quirks filling the screen on a regular basis.
I may have to go into hiding for saying this, but for me Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the first in the series to actually take flight and work as a film in its own right rather than just as an adaptation. And, of course, it does J.K. Rowling's work much more justice as a result. Great fun, for all the family - dare I say it? - magic.