Basilisk Not Faulty
As dedicated readers of my collected works may recall, I wasn't tremendously impressed by Philosopher's Stone, the first in the series of films based on J K Rowling's Harry Potter books: it seemed too pleased with itself, too doggedly devoted to the text of the
novel, and - above all - much too long. Not to mention that it came out very close to The Fellowship of the Ring, next to which almost any fantasy film would be found wanting.
Obviously, though, I was in the minority on this (as with so much else) and the film duly proceeded to become the second biggest money spinner of all time - and now, implacably, inevitably, the machine has geared up and produced Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, directed once again by Chris Columbus.
So off we trundled to see it, pausing only to pack sleeping bags, iron rations, and a supply of batteries for our electric razors - because the first film had its moments, after all, and Chamber of Secrets is probably my favourite of the books. Breath was duly bated - would it live up to the hype this time?
Well, calloo callay, and so on, because in nearly every way this film improves on its predecessor. It's becoming a bit of a cliché to describe it as 'darker and funnier', but that's what it is. In it, Harry Potter (still played by Daniel Radcliffe, still afflicted with a
dodgy barnet) finds that the onset of puberty means he must do battle with an alarming, malevolent serpent. But in his case this is more than mere metaphor. The new menace is inextricably linked to Harry's own heritage and the history of Hogwarts, and will place Harry and his friends in deadly peril...
The producers seem to have redoubled their efforts to get every single British actor of note to appear in the series1, and joining the likes of Maggie Smith, Richard Griffiths, Julie Walters and the late Richard Harris in this installment are the likes of Mark Williams, Miriam Margolyes, Jason Isaacs, Robert Hardy, Julian Glover, an almost unrecognisable Shirley Henderson, and, best of all, Kenneth Branagh, who gives an uproarious turn as the vainglorious Gilderoy Lockhart. The downside to all these new faces are that
some of the cast (most noticeably Robbie Coltrane and Alan Rickman) are somewhat eclipsed (the chemistry between Rickman and Branagh is a delight and very under exploited).
But at the heart of the film are the performances of the various young actors in the principal roles. To be honest, some of these performances are irritatingly over-emphatic or one-note, but this made up for by Radcliffe's increasing assurance as a performer. A brief
thumbs up to newcomer Christian Coulson, too, who hits exactly the right pitch in one of the film's crucial roles.
Chamber of Secrets is, even mores than its predecessor, arse-murderingly long, but you're aware of this fact much less often. Only at the very end does the pace let up, and (a brief glance at the book tells me) this is mainly because a lot of extraneous material has
been cut. At the same time the story has been subtly tweaked to make it more cinematic - the beefed-up encounter with Aragog and family easily surpasses anything in Eight Legged Freaks. My only complaint on this front would be that the ultimate villain's motivation has been snipped, reducing him to the level of troublemaker rather than
Machiavellian schemer. Ah well.
The technical side of things has been spruced up as well - the special effects are much less cartoony, which was probably inevitable given the wide array of CGI beasties in the story. Columbus' direction displays new-found flair - am I the only one who sees the influence of a certain Kiwi director in the swooping camera movements around Hogwarts and its exterior? The soundtrack occasionally seems like a selection from John Williams' back catalogue, but it does the job.
Any film based on the Harry Potter books would be pretty much guaranteed to rake in money, no matter what its quality, so it's nice to see genuine effort has gone into trying to make a film that does justice to J K Rowling's remarkable prose. I still can't see how they'll be able to tackle the other books in this much detail - at this rate Goblet of Fire won't be so much a night out as a weekend away - but, for the time being, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a big step in the right direction.