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November 22, 2005

Four Weddings director Mike Newell conjures best Potter picture yet

The makers of the Harry Potter films have the unenviable task of passing cinematic muster while simultaneously including every single detail from the books, so as to avoid outrage from the fanatic readers in the audience. The balancing act does not create good movies. Even the third cinematic installment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—which drew good reviews from critics and fans alike—felt packed to the brim with unnecessary snippets from the book by J.K. Rowling. There were twists and turns that relied on an understanding of the source material. Further, Prisoner was not visually satisfying. Remember that werewolf that looked like it had wandered in from the set of Scooby-Doo?

Considering the girth of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in the series, there was some discussion of making its film in two volumes, à la Kill Bill, and releasing the first at Thanksgiving and the second at Christmas. This sounds like a great idea, as the two together would cost less to make than two unrelated special-effects laden films, yet their combined box office might very well equal those of any two other films on the market. Better yet, the producers really ought to make a five-hour BBC version— à la Pride & Prejudice—that could be both a faithful adaptation and a wonderful piece of cinema.

But given that neither of those options came into play, I’m happy to report that Goblet is a wonderful movie for what it is, that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and that I would recommend it to all except children under the age of 10.

This is easily the darkest chapter thus far, and director Mike Newell shows no signs of his origins in romantic comedy (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mona Lisa Smile) as he delves into the impending doom that seems to face our friends at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The story follows Harry, Ron, and Hermione in their fourth year, with the reintroduction of the Triwizard Tournament, a legendary and dangerous competition for young wizards that, in this case, involves fighting dragons, getting octopus hickeys, and wandering through vast mazes of shrubbery.

The tournament serves as the organizing force of the film. Though I must admit that I missed many elements from the book, I simply cannot complain that they were not included. The screenplay by Steve Kloves, who wrote all the other Potter films, is his leanest yet. It wisely focuses on only about a dozen main sequences and carries each to satisfying completion. This means we do not see any Quidditch play whatsoever, spend only a few minutes inside a classroom, and hardly even glimpse much of the supporting cast. But it also means that what we do see is allowed to have its subtleties.

This new method brings the actors’ talents under a harsher light of scrutiny, as they have to sustain much longer scenes. Most of them are up to the task. Emma Watson as Hermione Granger is a revelation, handling her character’s transition from nerdiness to grace with wonderful poise. She delivers one of the movie’s few sexual innuendos, and does it with such wonderful timing and facial control that I cannot wait to see her star in something front and center.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Ron (Rupert Grint) do occasionally sound as though they are reading lines, but for the most part, they turn in solid work as well. Radcliffe is called upon to express a great deal of pain as his character is pummeled by dragons and whatnot. While at first he sounds more like somebody caught in a bizarre sexual experience than somebody in pain, over the course of the movie he seems to develop much greater skills for convincingly crying out in desperation.

My only major complaint about the cast falls on Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. He is cold, harsh, and constantly yelling, which is all wrong for the soft-spoken, deeply wise headmaster. After Richard Harris died, I was glad to see that the films had not merely hired someone to imitate his style. But now I am beginning to wonder if that might not have been a better idea, since Harris so thoroughly understood what it is to command power and respect without being the slightest bit intimidating or angry.

Happily, Goblet rises above these difficulties. It paints a wonderful world of lush scenery, which contrasts well with the approaching evil. The whole film has a flow to it that the others lacked. Consider, for example, its treatment of the Quidditch World Cup. We see some beautiful shots of a stadium that, as Roger Ebert pointed out, makes the Senate in the Star Wars prequels look like a conference room in some hotel. We get introduced to Victor Krum, the player who will feature prominently later on. But then the film does something daring: it cuts out before the game has even begun. It has a schedule to keep, and whereas the other films would have been tempted to endlessly dwell on the details of a game that have no bearing on the rest of the plot, this one knows better.

The same wise decision is made during the dragon duels of the Triwizard Tournament; we sit with Harry, listening to the action of the other three contestants, rather than watching three superfluous dragon fights. Then, when Harry finally enters the arena, the dragon sequence feels fresh and all the more intriguing for the wait. This is, incredibly, a Harry Potter film that is understands the power of suggestion, the importance of brevity in cinematic wit, and the beauty of an unrushed sequence.