Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Anyone I meet who is less than ecstatic about the prospect of another Harry Potter film always groans: "What, more Quidditch?"
As if aware of this reaction, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire begins by upping the ante on this particular sport: it is no longer a matter of kids zooming around on broomsticks in broad daylight, but a veritable World Cup presented as a cosmic, light-and-sound spectacular.
This emphasis on competitive games sets the tone for what is to follow. The chummy family scenes of earlier instalments seem far in the past. This time around, the kindly and wise Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) announces the Triwizard Tournament – a high-level competition that can, in fact, be fatal for its players.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) would seem too young and inexperienced for this league, but somehow his name is spat out of the Goblet of Fire – and then he must face the big boys like Krum (Stanislav Ianevski), and even one big girl, Fleur Delacour (Clémence Poésy).
But there are all sorts of subterranean plots lurking under the playing-out of this Tournament. Who doctored the Goblet? What are these premonitory, nightmarish visions from which Harry keeps waking in a cold sweat? Is there a defector from the ranks of the good magicians, keen to open a doorway to the Dark Side?
More than the previous films in the series, this Harry Potter instalment gestures to the ubiquitous culture of video games as its aesthetic model. Winning each round of the tournament means "getting to the next level". One of the challenges – which is also among the film's best and most satisfying scenes – takes place in a treacherous, Pac Man-style labyrinth. Even the scary "three curses" that are taught to the young witches and wizards by the roughneck "Mad-Eye" Moody (Brendan Gleeson) seem designed to signpost a game-style clinch.
However, the video-like progression through successive rounds of a tournament does not quite square with a good, old-fashioned movie narrative, even in this blockbuster age. Steve Kloves' script for Goblet of Fire shows the strain of this task when the tournament has to stop dead – and with it the narrative drive – for the sake of a long detour to the Yule Ball.
J. K. Rowling's books are sometimes puffed up by fans and publicists as a "modern day mythology". Mythologically, however, the Harry Potter stories offer a weak grab-bag of material. Harry, as the Chosen One who must accept his world-saving role, sometimes resembles Christ – or, more exactly, Neo (Keanu Reeves) in the Matrix films. The evil, tortured character of Voldemort (an unrecognisable Ralph Fiennes) allows a superficial scansion of moral conflicts, and reminds us of another popular Fallen Angel, Darth Vader in the Star Wars series.
Mostly, however, the Harry Potter cycle is content to aim lower than the stars. Its homely British charm (well milked by director Mike Newell) derives from the attention paid to everyday topics like friendship, manners and loyalty. With its young heroes now at the teen age, the question of how to behave gallantly while chasing attractive members of the opposite sex takes precedence. But even this intrigue rarely reaches the level of teary melodrama: when Hermione (Emma Watson) faces Harry's jealousy over her innocent fling with Krum, she defuses the situation by appealing to the vital need for "international co-operation".
The Harry Potter stories have always been metaphors for the bother and confusion involved in growing up. But now that puberty is well and truly upon these characters, the situation has to become more dramatic. This explains the progressive darkening of the series, which has sparked an unnecessary, excessive note of public hysteria: since puberty brings greater changes into the lives of the characters, the emotional weight of that change must be projected into scarier situations that balance life against death.
It is a pity that the sense of wonder characteristic of the best fantasy literature for children is here confined to a few welcome but fleeting magical touches: like the tent which appears small on the outside but becomes a veritable mansion on the inside, or a newspaper with moving pictures. The Harry Potter films seek moments of local colour and comic relief not in surrealistic fancies but in the eccentric behaviour of secondary characters – like the inquisitive gossip columnist Rita Skeeter (Miranda Richardson), or the saucy ghost Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson), who makes a delightful return appearance.
How very British.
© Adrian Martin November 2005