Directed by: Mike Newell
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson
As with Alfonso Cuaron's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Mike Newell's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is not afraid of frightening the horses. It will be interesting to see whether more objections will be raised over the film's dark and even violent tone, or its decidedly upped quotient of sexuality.
Both of these changes are notable, for they're part and parcel of what makes the Harry Potter franchise unique -- a series of films (and stories) that's built upon the premise that as the characters grow up, so does the audience. As a result, the mood, feeling and concerns of the films are increasingly adult -- and therefore increasingly likely to wring the withers of some viewers ... or at least of their parents. Harry and his friends are now going through puberty (as presumably are his fans), and the more childlike concerns of the earlier stories increasingly give way to more sophisticated ones.
On its simplest level, this means that the more "cute" elements and concerns of childhood are being slowly eliminated. Consider the amount of time the films expend on Harry's guardians. The elders are central to the first film and less so in the second. By the third film, the dynamic has changed with Harry, on the verge of adolescence, essentially telling his ghastly family to get bent and walking out the door in an act of rebellion. This round, they don't even rate a cameo, which comes off as appropriate in the film.
The series is also unique in that the films are not going the usual route of the diminished return. I don't quite subscribe to the view that the Potter movies just keep getting better. That's certainly true of the first three, but this fourth has the curious distinction of being perhaps the best of the Harry Potter series, while not being quite the best film in its own right.
It would be easy to say that this is because Mike Newell isn't quite the filmmaker that Alfonso Cuaron is, but that's neither fair, nor entirely true. Moreover, part of the reason Goblet of Fire isn't on the same level as Prisoner of Azkaban lies with Cuaron convincing Newell that the 734-page novel could be effectively pared down to a longish single film (originally, turning it into two films was considered).
Cuaron wasn't wrong, and Newell and screenwriter Steve Kloves managed the task, but at the price of making a movie that isn't as self-contained as the others. Even Azkaban -- which made heavy cuts to its source material -- would be largely comprehensible to viewers who had only a cursory familiarity with the earlier films. Goblet of Fire, on the other hand, works very much on the assumption that you've seen the first three and have a good working knowledge of the characters and the overriding story. It's frankly debatable whether the film would be wholly comprehensible to the uninitiated, though the story line is fairly straightforward.
The plot itself concerns the "Tri-Wizard Match," a very dangerous international young wizards' competition in which Harry is too young to enter, even if his name mysteriously comes out of the titular Goblet of Fire -- meaning he has to compete. (The Goblet's decision is absolute.) That much is simple. Yet so much of the film revolves around the development of the main characters -- not to mention the central running issue of the attempts of ueber-villain Lord Voldemort to return to solid life -- making some grounding necessary.
Assuming that the viewer has that grounding, Newell has made a splendidly layered film of some complexity -- and freshness. Certain notable breaks with the past have taken place here. Original director and subsequent producer Chris Columbus' name appears nowhere on the film, which may well be one of the things that allows this entry to tread murkier waters. Apart from the use of the "Hedwig" (the owl, not the drag queen) theme, John Williams' often bombastic musical score has been replaced with a much subtler -- and creepier -- one by Patrick Doyle (who scored Newell's Donnie Brasco). And in a bold (and for this viewer, blessed) move, the obligatory Quidditch match is reduced to a brief sequence at the beginning of the film.
All of this coalesces into a movie that persuasively examines the increasing terrors of adolescence -- both fantasticated and otherwise. The tests through which our heroes must pass are harsher -- sometimes to the point of being sadistic. It's not just status that's at risk here, but actual life and limb.
The looks into the kids' sexual awakening are surprisingly adult and penetrating. It's a very real surprise to find the film at least touch on sexual confusion in Ron's (Rupert Grint) jealousy over Hermione's (Emma Watson) date with competing wizard Viktor Krum (newcomer Stanislav Ianevski), since it's never wholly clear (even to Ron) of whom he's jealous. Less subtle -- and more apt to worry some viewers -- is a scene where Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson) shares a bath with Harry and tries to assess his endowments. But all this comes off as real and offers a solid look at the reality of adolescence. When Hermione remarks, "Everything is going to change now, isn't it?" she deftly sums up the awakening fear of encroaching adulthood and its complexities.
The virtual who's who of British Actors' Equity in the supporting cast (a mark of the series) is well served, even with frequently minimal screen time, while the younger cast members are getting increasingly impressive with the passage of time. It all results in an unusually rich film -- one of the brightest spots in a so far rather dull year. Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke