Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Harry Potter friends confront wanted killer Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Julie Christie (Madam Rosmerta), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dusley), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petrunia Dursley), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Emma Thompson (Sybill Trewlawney), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), Pam Ferris (Marge Dursley)

Well this is more like it. The first two films set the tone and established the universe. But Prisoner of Azkaban – filmed after a year’s break from the back-to-back filming of the first two films – is such a notable step-up in quality from the previous films, it completely stands alone as a marvellous piece of cinematic storytelling, not just as part of a franchise.

Why is this? Well I think the answer is pretty clear. After the solid, but unspectacular, direction from Chris Columbus, the reins were handed to a gifted filmmaker in Alfonso Cuarón. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has all the visual invention and dynamism the first two films lacked. Alongside that, Cuarón tells the story with a brilliant mixture of light and dark. For the first time, the adaptation also escaped the need to dramatise everything in the book onto the screen – this film is a good 20 minutes shorter than Chamber of Secrets but immeasurably superior.

Prisoner of Azkaban looks fantastically gorgeous, and is brilliantly shot. The production and costume design has been spruced up, to give the film a sort of steam-punk 1950s look, as if the wizarding world had slightly arrested a few decades behind the rest of the world. Cuarón was also one of the first directors in the series who seemed relaxed enough to let the children act like children – so we get scenes of them mucking around in the dormitory or dressed with a teenage coolness. Hogwarts becomes a castle of shadows and gloom, in a magical, wintry whiteness and Scottish Highlands shades of greens and blues. More than any of the previous films, its a world that feels ‘real’ and lived in. It’s a style that would dominate all the remaining films: Cuarón essentially set the tone for the rest of the series to come.

It also helps that Cuarón was blessed with perhaps the strongest of Rowling’s stand-alone stories, a tight and taut thriller that reaches a surprising conclusion and features playful use of things like time travel and illicit magic. Cuarón, however, really embraces the emotional core of that story, and allows all these characters to expand in richness and depth. Harry faces real torment and anger when confronted with the story of the death of his parents, and his desperate yearning to have some sort of connection with them is a key thread that runs through almost every scene.

The film highlights the growing flirtation and connection between Ron and Hermione. Hermione herself is increasingly shown as a level-headed, empathetic young woman, who really understands the feelings of her friends. Several other characters are allowed to show depths: don’t forget this is the film where we see Snape’s first reaction when confronted with a werewolf is to put himself between it and the children. Rickman, by the way, is brilliant in this film, giving us the first hints of the deep and abiding feelings Snape held for Harry’s mother in his bitter anger at Sirius.

As always the film introduces some fantastic new characters into the mix. Gary Oldman is simply superb as Sirius Black, bringing to life his torment and rage, but most especially Blacks warmth and generosity (as well as his boyish enthusiasm). It was a major change of pace for Oldman, who has credited the film with changing his image in Hollywood away from one-note villain. Emma Thompson is very funny as (possibly) delusional divination teacher Sybil Trelawney. David Thewlis though waltzes off with the movie as a sad-eyed Remus Lupin, a man who clearly has known great losses. Thewlis plays Lupin with a caring, scruffy charm, an ideal teacher and mentor – generous but also firm when needed. It’s impossible not to end the film caring deeply for him. He’s terrific – it’s a real shame he never got another real showpiece scene in the rest of the franchise.

This is also our first introduction to Michael Gambon as Dumbledore – a replacement for the late Richard Harris. Gambon plays the part with a curious twinkly cheekiness, and a greater physical robustness, along with a faint Irish twang which feels like a homage to Harris. It’s a slightly uncertain start, but Gambon’s unusual, slightly-faded-hippie take on the part stands out from Harris’ austere wise-man very nicely. His lightness makes the moments of power all the more awe-inspiring. It also rather fits in with the tone of Cuarón’s slightly off-beat style.

Cuarón has a real eye for the offbeat gag – from a cleaner almost being blown away by a monster’s howl in the Leaky Cauldron, to the kids eating animal sweets in their dormitory, to Dumbledore’s off-camera delay tactics with Fudge (“Well it is a very long name minister” he says when asked to sign something), there are many delightful sight and sound gags throughout the film to make it a joy to discover. His balance of this with the heart of the story is brilliant: the inflation of Pam Ferris’ vile Aunt Marge is both brilliantly funny, but also clearly motivated by the revolting things she openly says to Harry about his parents. It’s a great balance the film pulls off time and time again.

The film is wonderfully structured and beautifully paced. It’s got a very clear five act structure, and thematic thread running through the whole film of grief and needing friends to help cope with this. The parts of the book that don’t contribute to this have been skilfully trimmed down. Cuarón then brilliantly interweaves set-piece moments, many of them introduced with an off-the-wall inventiveness, such as the umbrella dancing in the wind before the storm-swept Quiddich match (is there any health and safety in this school at all by the way?).

By the time you hit the final sequences, thanks to the film’s structure, you’ve no doubt about the revolting dangers of the Dementors. These spectral creatures are returned to again and again by Cuarón’s careful editing, as we see them drifting around the borders of Hogwarts, killing flowers and freezing lakes by their very presence. These terrifying creatures are the creepy stuff of nightmares – and Cuarón doesn’t flinch from this. It also makes Harry’s successful conjuring of a Patronus at the film’s conclusion a stirring and triumphant moment, a suitable triumphal ending to the film.

Cuarón’s direction of this film re-set the table for the entire franchise. Both Mike Newell and David Yates would follow in his footsteps, and present the world as Cuarón imagined it: dark blacks, and muted primary colours, as much a world of creepy, unsettling threat and danger, as it was of delight and wonder. From this point on the films would start to stand on their own feet, focusing on exploring the themes and emotions of Rowling’s story, rather than covering every scene. Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the Harry Potter films and the most important landmark in the series. It’s not just a great Harry Potter film, or a great fantasy film or kids’ film. It’s a great film.

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