Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuarón, 2004)

07Sep10

Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black). Screenplay by Steve Kloves. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Rating: PG. Running time: 125 minutes.

Wow! This is magical. And I’m not just making an obvious statement there about the fact this is a Harry Potter film. I mean, finally, that this was the film that actually lived up to the wild expectations generated by the quality and imagination of the novels, and if anything this exceeds them. I’m pretty sure Rowling’s early writing style wouldn’t appeal to me now I’m no longer a kid, but Prisoner of Azkaban the film, surprisingly but amazingly, persists as a damn fine piece of art.

I have to put it down to Cuarón, don’t I? I have no choice. Whilst having no distinct style consistent throughout his filmography – rather like Spielberg, when you think about it – he nevertheless seems to get is just right on every occasion. And here, in the third instalment of the series, he did for the Harry Potter franchise what Kershner did for Star Wars: retained the fun of the previous efforts, whilst simultaneously darkening the visual tone and ensuring those evidently Edinburgh-inspired Hogwarts towers look sufficiently Gothic to reflect the frightening situation the characters face.

The balance is perfect: there are still joyful scenes that have no purpose but as ends in themselves – none more than Harry flying Buckbeak across that glorious Loch, and his classmates ‘ridiculusing’ the constantly transforming boggart. My favourite comes right at the start – the funky purple Knight Bus that rescues Harry from the Dursleys and speeds him across to London’s Leaky Cauldron darts between cars at about 300 miles an hour, squeezing between two double decker buses and slamming on its breaks with a second to spare when an old lady appears (apparently the ‘muggles’ are oblivious). The feel, including the dialogue, is all so incredibly quirky. I suppose the best comparison would be to imagine a film with extras all very similar to Michael Caine’s Jasper and his security guard friend Syd in Children of Men – such eccentric people seem to marvellously fill up the wizarding world at every opportunity here, and their funny way of speaking even seems to infiltrate the Weasley twins who we already know so well – here they are more in sync than ever.

All of this is somehow blended perfectly with genuine dread. This is the only film (and book) lacking a climactical encounter with Lord Voldemort, and yet Sirius Black’s senile picture on the front of the Daily Prophet, accompanied by frequent encounters with the soul-sucking dementors, seemingly gives Cuarón enough ammo with which to fire this one up with fear. It all culminates in an almost real-time final sequence stretching on for a good third of the film, as Professor Lupin’s, Scabber’s and Sirius’ true identity are all revealed before a philosophically perplexing but well done time-travel sequence to save the latter ensues.

Of course some of the acting still isn’t up to scratch, no less evident than in some pretty poor line delivery from the young wizards. But that is inevitable when you have no choice but to pack a film with child actors only starring in their third feature. What’s noteworthy is that, more times than not, the jokes between them actually work. That Draco Malfoy finally becomes funny on more than one occasion is not an achievement to be scowled upon. When added to how delightful yet frightful the world now looks and is, this becomes wonderful, wonderful stuff.

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