Tuesday, 26 May 2015

BLOCKBUSTER: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (UK/ USA, 2005)
Directed by Mike Newell
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane

It has become increasingly common for different instalments of a film franchise to be helmed by different directors. Even in a series as long-running as James Bond, it was quite common for directors like Guy Hamilton and John Glen to helm several consecutive stories. With the brand now seemingly more important than any form of directorial stamp, it is more usual for different hands to come in and do things their way, albeit within clearly set parameters.

 
All of which brings us to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the halfway point of the Harry Potter series. With Alfonso Cuarón electing not to direct a second film, and moving on to Children of Men, the job was given to Mike Newell, best known for the Oscar-nominated comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral. But whatever misgivings one may have about his back catalogue, the appointment paid off, with Goblet of Fire matching its predecessor in many respects and possibly even improving in others.
 
Newell's versatility as a director is evident throughout Goblet of Fire, in that he is required to pull off many different kinds of scenes and handle several key emotional developments in the characters. Goblet of Fire was the point at which the Harry Potter books began to grow in size, which in turn meant that the filmmakers had to cram a lot more into the adaptations. Newell deliberately chose to "put aside" all elements of the novel which were not directly linked to Harry's journey, and the result is that the film remains a generally focussed effort, despite being the second-longest at 157 minutes.
 
In my review of the previous instalment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I commented that the film did a good job of setting up conflict between the three main characters, challenging Harry's image of a "goody two-shoes" and deepening the characters as a result. Newell's effort builds on this in spades, with all three characters now firmly in the throes of adolescence and Harry struggling with his reputation as his visions grow stronger and more terrifying.
 
One of the most refreshing and entertaining aspects of Goblet of Fire is seeing our three main characters go through periods of intensely hating each other. This may sound like schadenfreude, coming from a man who's always preferred Tolkien to Rowling, but conflict is essential to good drama, and the series was still playing catch-up after the emotional stodge of the first two films. Our three heroes are at a point where their identities are being called in question by forces beyond their control, whether their own hormones or the Dark Lord. Under such circumstances, in-fighting is not only expected, it should be welcomed.
 
It's for this reason that the ball scene is one of the best in the entire film. For all the thrilling spectacle of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, scenes like this are the emotional heart of the film. There is a degree of empathy that we share with the characters before any of the arguments occur: we remember how dorky and nervous we seemed at our high school dances. But once we see Hermione erupt at her embarassment, or Ron scowl at her in resentment, it all comes alive. By making us question these friendships so comprehensively, it makes the more malevolent moments more weighty, giving us more to fear and less on which to depend.
 
Much of Goblet of Fire is concerned with identity and about characters having to pretend to be something they're not. Harry spends the entire film in a state of reluctance: while he doesn't go all mopey about it, he clearly doesn't want to be involved in the Tri-Wizard Tournament. On the other side, we have Barty Crouch Jr. (played well by David Tennant), who uses polyjuice potion to impersonate a teacher and gain Harry's confidence. Both characters are under pressure to live up to their identities, with Harry even struggling to fight Voldemort in their climactic battle in the graveyard. The only real distinction between them is choice: Crouch chooses to be driven by malice, while Harry's destiny is already sealed.
 
When the book was released, Rowling gave many interviews in which she cited the story's main theme as one of bigotry. She said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that it was "probably the thing I detest most. All forms of intolerance, the whole idea of 'that which is different from me is necessary evil'." It would be fair to assume that the main vehicle for this theme would be Voldemort, whose contempt for muggles is conveyed in the graveyard. But the film also focusses on bigotry as an advanced form of favouritism, something evident in Draco Malfoy's behaviour and to a certain extent in the tournament.
 
This brings us on fittingly to the return of Voldemort, specifically his return to a physical body and the performance of Ralph Fiennes. Bringing Voldemort back was bound to happen sooner or later, and Newell and screenwriter Steve Kloves work hard to justify this, gradually building up the darker aspects of the plot until it becomes tragically inevitable. After this instalment the series struggled to keep Voldemort interesting, with the final conflict between him and Harry being steadily delayed for increasingly contrived reasons. But within the confines of this film, it works - at least up to a point.
 
Fiennes' performance has often been a sticking point with fans, with people being split over whether he was truly intimidating or unintentionally hilarious. It's certainly true that Fiennes walks the line between horror and comedy, and not always with confidence: while it's not exactly Victor Quartermaine from Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, it's a much more larger-than-life villain than Amon Goeth in Schindler's List. Ultimately Fiennes does what the film needs to do, giving Voldemort a believable presence and showing the threat he poses to Harry. It's not a complete success, but it fulfils the requirements of the role.
 
Others within the adult cast fare far better in delivering convicing portrayals. David Tennant may be associated with heroic roles after his tenure on Doctor Who, but his performance as Barty Crouch, Jr. has an appealingly skin-crawling quality. He manages to maintain an almost manic state without ever coming across as a ham, allowing his outbursts to become properly threatening. The late Roger Lloyd Pack is also good as his father, a bureaucrat who seems wracked with guilt and nerves for what he did to his son and the peril which Harry is in. And Brendon Gleeson is perfectly cast as Mad Eye Moody, bringing his unusual physicality to the fore in the classroom scenes and giving us a lot to laugh at when he's angry.
 
The other big asset of Goblet of Fire is its visuals. Roger Pratt returns as cinematographer, having previously lent his talents to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. No longer shackled by Chris Columbus, he does a much better job here, continuing the work of Cuarón and Michael Seresin of bringing out the dark blues and blacks for an intimidating atmosphere. Pratt is a fantasy veteran, having worked with Terry Gilliam on Brazil, The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys; he knows a thing or two about creating a sense of magic or horror, making the maze scenes feel like they've escaped from The Shining.
 
There are a couple of faults with Goblet of Fire which prevent it from completely surpassing its predecessor. Despite Newell's best efforts and intentions to keep the action focussed on Harry, the plot still feels occassionally meandering, as if more effort were being expended on something than was necessary. Whole sections of the book have been left out, and others changed so that different characters could get screen time, and it may be that elements of the books simply don't work on film. But it's still a baggy offering, even if it's an enjoyable one.
 
The other flaw, as with many of the Potter films, is predictability. I complained in my Prisoner of Azkaban review about the Defence Against the Dark Arts convention, which has gone from being a mild irritation to an example of lazy writing. Equally Harry's inclusion in the wizard tournament may turn out to be narratively integral, but the circumstances in which he becomes involved are an enormous contrivance. It feels like the plot is making every effort to keep Harry at the centre of the action even when it doesn't make sense, to the point of setting up rules only to break them. The smart, or at least different thing to do, would be to have him completely marginalised, letting Voldemort approach him more directly rather than luring him in through coincidences.
 
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a confident addition to the franchise which builds on the successes of its predecessor to create an emotionally satisfying experience. It still suffers from the ongoing flaws of bagginess and predictability, facets which would become more problematic during David Yates' tenure. But if you can look beyond that, you are looking at a film which rivals Prisoner of Azkaban as the high point to which the other films aspire.


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NEXT REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

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