Harry faces darkness, romance in ‘Goblet’
November 17, 2005
Childhood ends for Harry Potter, the young wizard with the zigzag scar and phantasmagorical world of troubles, not long after the dragons have roared and the merpeople have screeched their empty threats through broken teeth.
And, as in the book “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” on which this latest and happily satisfying film adaptation is based, childhood ends with screams and a final shudder in a graveyard crowded with tombstones and evil. In a scene of startling intensity, one boy dies while another is delivered from the malevolent force that has steadily wended its way through J.K. Rowling’s series toward its prey.
This is the second time that Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), now 14, has experienced childhood’s end, of course, as Rowling and the directors of all four films have reminded us. Orphaned at 1 by the malevolent wizard Lord Voldemort, Harry has developed over the years, in books and films, from a sentimental Dickensian figure into a prickly adolescent for whom girls now present almost as serious a problem as the dark lord. As those who have cracked the spines of the books know, their genius rests as much in Harry’s dual identity as in Rowling’s grasp on the fantastic: at once susceptibly human and wholly alien, a geeky outsider and an awesomely cool kid, Harry holds up a mirror to those who curl up with books and congregate in theaters, taking flight in their imaginations.
As did the last film, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” the new one opens and ends on an ominous note. In “Azkaban,” a giant tree whacks a bird out of the air both at the start and at the close; in “Goblet of Fire,” it’s people who get whacked. These poor creatures are not in the novel, but they cleverly bookend “Azbakan,” setting the stage for the scarier, more dire and serious story immediately to follow, as well as for the darker stories yet to come.
If the world of the first two installments, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” both directed by the aggressively upbeat Chris Columbus, represented some kind of paradise for the boy wizard, it was a paradise that, we come to see, would soon be lost.
The slithering snake and shivering caretaker who inaugurate “The Goblet of Fire” make it clear that the PG action has been ratcheted up to PG-13. Like his predecessor, Alfonso Cuaron, who brought new beauty and depth to the series, director Mike Newell embraces the saga’s dark side with flair. This time, the story pivots on the Triwizard Tournament, a competition that finds Harry risking life and limb against three young challengers and a litany of more menacing foes.
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In between feats of derring-do with digitally enhanced dragons, there are dining-room flirtations, schoolyard confrontations and a gaggle of visiting girls who line up like so many Madelines, only to break ranks like La Femme Nikita. There are also the usual growing pains and, somewhat less thrillingly, no small amount of teenage angst.
Now 16, Radcliffe pouts reasonably well, but has yet to develop the skill to make that pouting feel emotionally substantive. This might pose a serious obstacle for the films, but it hasn’t yet, largely because watching him and his young co-stars ” the excellent Rupert Grint as Ron, the touchingly earnest Emma Watson as Hermione ” grow up onscreen has its dividends. Cinema doesn’t just immortalize actors, locking them into youth, it also solicits our love in a way that books do not, since it isn’t just the characters we fall for, but the actors playing them, too. Radcliffe isn’t an acting titan or even one of the Culkins, but you root for him nonetheless, partly because you want Harry to triumph and partly because there is something poignant about how this actor struggles alongside his character.
If the lead attraction remains somewhat unsteady on his feet, one of the constant pleasures of the films, and one of the benefits of the big Hollywood money behind them, has been their pedigreed talent. Among the British sirs, dames and quality hams returning to the series are Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall and Gary Oldman, whose brief appearance is sadly little more than a tease. New to the scene are Miranda Richardson as Rita Skeeter, a snoopy journalist who is mainly on hand to remind us that Harry is no longer a child, and Brendan Gleeson as the latest addition to the Hogwarts staff, Mad-Eye Moody. A man of garrulous temperament and removable parts, including a googly eye that he wears like a pirate’s patch, Mad-Eye is a pip.
As good as these actors are, nothing prepares you for the malevolent force that is Lord Voldemort and the brilliance of the actor playing him, Ralph Fiennes. Dressed in a flowing black robe that seems to float off his body rather than hang, Fiennes moves with lissome grace, his smooth white head bobbing like a cork on a sea, his fluttery hands and feet as pale and bright as beacons. For years, the movies have tried to transform this delicate beauty into a heartthrob, but as “Schindler’s List” proved, Fiennes is an actor for whom a walk on the darker side is not just a pleasure, but liberation. His Voldemort may be the greatest screen performance ever delivered without the benefit of a nose; certainly it’s a performance of sublime villainy.
Fiennes enters the film spectacularly, if regrettably late, whooshing into that crowded graveyard like a Butoh dancer from hell. He brings the film to an unsettling close, one that doesn’t so much polish off the story as leave it in tatters. That’s to the good of the film and the series, since each new story has to satisfy on its own terms as well as prime us for the next installment. If Cuaron raised the series to a new level with “Azbakan,” Newell, best known for ingratiating mainstream fare like “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and best remembered for the bracing likes of “Donnie Brasco,” manages to keep his contribution at a similarly high level of enthrallment. The gloom and doom may be less poetically realized, but the combination of British eccentricity, fatalism and steady-on pluck remains irresistibly intact.