Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The depth of the magic in Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban makes the previous two films seem like joke shop gags. Yes, the story has acquired an edge: our three little ragamuffins are getting to the age of not believing in their own helplessness. We are propelling at broomstick-speeds towards tween romancing and the thought makes the rain colder and my clothes thinner. But here at least we have our promises fulfilled, a fantasy that seems to spring from our own minds and not just from J.K. Rowling’s. This film melts in your mouth. Cuarón colludes with us like one of Harry’s helpful army of British character actors whispering in our ear in a language we understand without knowing, or a clever dad with a dark and silly secret. This is the first Harry Potter film that feels like an open book. It’s the best teen film ever made.

A bird lilts over the grounds of the castle in a sweeping introduction to a Hogwarts morning, and only later do we discover that its path marks the journey of the film. We fly through the molding of the bridge on which Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) will ask Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) about his dead mother. We bounce over the courtyard in which we will learn that some wizards believe in inferior magical genes, or those they call “mudbloods.” We see Hagrid’s (Robbie Coltrane) mealy shack, in which a decision will be made beyond the means of the meager décor. We fly through the clock in which Harry and Hermione (Emma Watson) will decide to unravel the mysteries of the previous day by reliving it in another timeframe. And there is the womping willow, that enigmatic tree with a temper all its own. The tree will mark the seasons for us, and later it will shake the snow from its branches – a piece will hit the camera lens, though the tree is of course a creation of a computer. Why? The tactic is cheeky. Cuarón is admitting that CGI of course represents a fake thing, but he is telling us here that the uninformed should take it as real as magic. It is in a moment what Jean Cocteau did in La Belle et La Bête when he scrawled on the chalkboard the words: “I ask of you a little childlike simplicity.”

Cuarón seems to hope we will take the little things for granted, as children do, so his big things can work their magic. He’s making sure we’re hearing, and not just listening. As a reward, Azkaban is brimming not just with magical things made of effects but things that turn to actual magic in our eyes. (Remember the secret of all great magic tricks, not that miraculous things happen, but that they happen “before our very eyes.” Real magic is always a matter of gaze.) Cuarón makes sure not to cut too often – he lets our eyes be deceived and disenchanted by what happens right in front of them. His infamous long takes, which usually draw out the stresses of brutal action as in Children of Men, here activate our gaze within his magical world. They make us children in it.

Consider a scene in Professor Lupin’s classroom. The class is learning how to confront a magical creature called a boggart. No one knows what they look like because they take the form of the viewer’s worst fear (a Rowling obsession – to assign characters traits based on their experiences). The spell to combat the creature (“Riddikulus!”) transforms the fear into a goofy version of it. Ron gives a giant spider roller skates (not the best alternative, mind you, but the intention is clear). More amusingly, Neville (Matthew Lewis) gives the acidic Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) the tatty rags of an English bag lady. Preceding this exchange is a shot equivalent to the director preparing a sleight of hand trick: the camera dollies into a mirror that reflects the class, and as it meets the mirror, it passes through it and into the actual class before our very eyes. This is a world in which reflections are not more real than reality. The effect on us is unmistakable: magic is not a thing, but a view of the world that sees magic in it. Cuarón’s goal seems to be to maintain that view for as long as possible, hanging on this shot forever, to invite us onto his knee and hold us there for as long as we’re still children and willing to listen.

This device encompasses the picture in the third act, when Harry and Hermione re-interact with the previous day using a device that travels in time (the non-magical part of my brain tells me that such a device should be more than lightly banned by schoolteachers, or used in other films when things get really dire, but I will at least match Cuarón’s efforts, to believe in it just this once, and not harp on it later). When they do so, they find that they have to activate the actions of their previous selves, that though they can’t change anything in time, their new perspective allows them to see that they can’t. The final task is to wait for Harry’s father to come and save him. Harry knows that he saw his dad the previous day. He knows it. And in knowing, he reveals the true extent of his tragedy. Remember as a small boy when he learned that magic was real? What was going on in his raggedy head? We now know it: to him, magic provided just the faintest hope that his parents might still come back. What’s one more amazing thing that he doesn’t understand? But his father doesn’t come. At that very moment, he has to step out into the clearing and save himself. This is the moment when he must know that they are truly dead, and also that he can survive without them. I couldn’t dream of a better ending for this character, not with five more films of magical derring-do.

The enemies he faces in Azkaban are in a different league from the previous films. A child understands that you have to fight monsters, but what can we do about a Dementor? They are cloaks hung limply on what looks like a black skull, with crooked black hands and breath like a frigid smoke. They feed on good memories; they eat them out of you. They are Harry’s archenemy because his good memories are so few they are that much stronger. They make him faint because of it, of which his vile classmates are fond of reminding him. But they don’t see them as Harry does. The film blacks out with him, and all he can hear is his dead mother’s screams. A focus shot leads us into Harry’s darkness, and out of it.

Harry is tougher in this film; puberty has gifted him the capacity for anger (though poor Radcliffe can hardly make any sense of it: his angry sneer looks like his trousers are too tight). But remember that he is still not a wizard warrior or great hero. When learning to defend himself against Dementors, Professor Lupin remarks, “I didn’t expect you to do it on the first try. That would have been remarkable.” Harry is remarkable, only in how bad his life has been.

Grint is least active in this film – Ron himself seems to be missing all his classes with us. By comparison, this is Watson’s best work. I love how she gives Hermione the ability to wedge herself into any conversation. She manages to become the center of attention without seeming to care for it. She’s just that “insufferable” (Snapes’ word). I love her for it, in Azkaban at least.

The new classes concur with the new tone (why didn’t the other directors think of that?). Emma Thompson is tremulous brilliance as the eccentric Sybill Trelawney, the fortunetelling professor who scares herself when she spooks Harry by foretelling his death from the bottom of a teacup (a young extra named Ekow Quartey, in this film only, reads aloud the omen from a book of death with the same eyes Bill Duke had when he saw the Predator). Someone called Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) has escaped from Azkaban prison and is heading straight for Harry. Black has a role in Harry’s past that I won’t spoil. More significant is Cuarón’s introduction of Black to the audience, a scene of filmmaking bliss. Harry is talking to Ron’s dad (Mark Williams) in a pub. He pulls Harry aside, away from his friends, and Cuarón winds up the long shot. They begin talking; the camera follows them from ahead. They sequester themselves to the side, behind stone pillars that block Harry’s friends from view. We realize that this information will make him alone. The set blocks off the scene’s color as Mr. Weasley finally tells Harry that Black is coming for him. The camera moves in on Harry, alone now in the frame with a foreboding picture of Black behind him, all the color gone from the shot, now frank as a newspaper clipping. We feel that we’re already seeing Harry Potter’s death.

There’s no end to Cuarón’s ingenuity in communicating the meaning of scenes with nothing but the scene. Style flows out of him: why is he the first to think of Hogwarts as a true gothic fortress? The students arrive in wooden carriages on a rainy night. The dining hall lit by hovering candles is not the quaint marvel it was in the Chris Columbus films – it’s a site of warning and drama. Headmaster Dumbledore warns the students that the Dementors will prowl the grounds looking for Black and won’t turn down a snack, in case anyone was considering going out after dark. The greying wizard is impersonated (the old term fits this context) by Michael Gambon, standing in for the deceased Richard Harris. Gambon is brusquer and boomier than Harris, almost as though he’s aged backwards – any other role wouldn’t have survived such a change. But in Dumbledore’s case, the dual performance makes him seem even more mysterious and all-knowing, as though he literally changes form based on the story’s tone.

When I consider even the smallest detail, Cuarón’s acumen shines through the routine of what should have been an average teen movie based on another book I’ve never read. In the previous films, magic spells made crackling and exploding sounds like little firecrackers: they really sounded like tricks. Here, they are chimes and bells, warm sounds that lift up into choruses of voices, moved by the character of the person that casts them into their fears, and also their awe.

Azkaban isn’t like other youth fantasy films. It has more biting character drama than the more aloof The Lord of the Rings and more pointed commentary than The Chronicles of Narnia. A parade of English character actors safely cushions the young leads between Oscar winners on all sides, giving the film the majesty of a full production even with its mere twice-tested heroes. Cuarón captures whole passages in a single shot, provokes feelings of change and isolation and grandeur merely with placement and clever construction. It is a film whose devices are so good that sometimes (and this is what we critics wait for with baited hearts, like younglings waiting for the end of a riveting fairy story) they even stop hiding the means of the device, revealing the film as a film, and bedazzling us with a new look at another world. In a world of luggage and leftovers, of ones and zeroes, what greater magic is there?


Image is a screenshot from the film. 

Cast & Crew

Alfonso Cuarón

Steve Kloves


Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe
Hermione Granger Emma Watson
Ron Weasley Rupert Grint
Albus Dumbledore Michael Gambon
Severus Snape Alan Rickman
Sybill Trelawney Emma Thompson
Sirius Black Gary Oldman

Official Trailer

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