Tag: Tom Felton

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

You’ll believe an ape can talk in this brilliant relaunch of a franchise that had become a joke

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Cast: Andy Serkis (Caesar), James Franco (Dr Will Rodman), Freida Pinto (Dr Caroline Aranha), John Lithgow (Charles Rodman), Brian Cox (John Landon), Tom Felton (Dodge Landon), David Oyelowo (Steven Jacobs), Terry Notary (Rocket/Bright Eyes), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Richard Ridings (Buck)

It was always a concept some found hard to take seriously. Actors, in heavy make-up, pretending to the Ape masters of Planet Earth. It didn’t help that, after the first few films in the Planet of the Apes franchise the quality took a complete nosedive. Quite a lot for Rise of the Planet of the Apes to overcome: could it take this staple of popular culture and make it not only not a joke, but something people actually wanted to see? Well yes it certainly could. Rise is an intelligent, cinematically rich, surprisingly low-key and brilliantly done relaunch.

It has the advantage of course of decades of special-effects development. Gone are the days of Roddy McDowell in a monkey suit. Now motion capture can literally transform an actor into a chimp. In a way that other Planet of the Apes films never could, it can make the Apes the centre of the film. And if you are going to call for an actor who can help you bring life to a motion capture created character, who else are you going to call but Andy Serkis?

Serkis plays Caesar, the ape who (those of us familiar with the franchise know) will become the founder of the Ape civilisation. The first Ape who stood up and said “No”. He’s the son of Bright Eyes, a chimp who receives ALZ-112, an experimental drug designed to cure Alzheimer’s. Its invented by Dr Will Rodman (James Franco), desperate to cure his father Charles (John Lithgow). The experiment goes wrong and Bright Eyes is killed – but not before giving birth to Caesar, who inherits unnatural levels of intelligence from the drug. Will protects and raises Caesar, treating him as a son. But when Caesar is taken from Will and placed in an abusive ape sanctuary, he begins to see it as his mission to help his fellow apes. The revolution starts here.

Rise – for all it has a computer effect in almost every frame – works because it is small-scale intimate story. For a film full of nothing but effects, it feels remarkably like a sort of sci-fi relationship drama. It’s effectively about a child learning to become a man and find his own destiny, leaving behind a loving (but ineffective) father who, unknowingly, is blocking his progress, to stand as his own man (or rather ape). The motion capture is so stunningly well-done you forget that you are looking at a special effect for in almost every frame, and instead accept Caesar as our lead character.

Wyatt’s film eases us into this, centring Will (played with a generosity and warmth by James Franco) as our lead character and filtering our perception of Caesar through his eyes, as he grows up in his suburban house and learns to climb in San Francisco’s Redwood forests. The careful shift to making Caesar our central character – complete by the time we see him imprisoned in the dangerous environment of the ape sanctuary – is so masterfully done, that we hardly notice that large chunks of the second half of the film take place in wordless silence among the apes, Caesar’s thoughts and emotions communicated only by body language, expressive eyes and hand gestures.

To get that to work, you need a stunning actor behind it. Serkis’ performance is extraordinary: he used motion capture to become an ape, exactly capturing the physicality but also marrying it with real human emotions. We can look at Caesar’s face at any point and know exactly what he’s thinking and feeling. His joy in his home, his protective fury when a confused Charles is assaulted by a furious neighbour, his distress at being locked away, his fear and confusion at his new surroundings his hardening resolve and his determination to liberate his fellow apes. This is extraordinary stuff.

It’s not just Serkis. Every ape has a talented actor behind it. Notary is a master of ape physicality, Konoval creates a beautifully wise and tender orangutan, Ridings finds loyalty and tenderness in a gorilla, Christopher Gordon a psychotic energy to abused lab-rat ape Koba. The marriage between actor and ape is perfect, and means we are completely on their side against mankind (be it in the lab or the ape sanctuary) they are up against. Wordless sequences of Caesar’s ingenuity: establishing himself as the Alpha with shrewd combat tactics, winning friends with cookies, stealing drugs to gift the other apes his own intelligence (their silent wonder at their interior worlds expanding is brilliantly done) and finally leading a revolt (including that goose-bumps rousing “No!”) is superb.

Wyatt’s skilful, calm and controlled visual storytelling is a triumph in making the determination of a CGI Ape a punch-the-air moment. Wyatt makes each Ape as much – sometimes more – of a character than the humans and weaves an emotionally complex story for Caesar. This isn’t about an angry Ape leading bloody revolution. This is a confused, gentle teenager trying to work out who he is. Is he Will’s son or his pet (do sons normally wear leashes in public)? Is he a dreamer or a leader? And, above all, is a man or an ape? When push comes to shove, where will his loyalties lie?

This makes for emotionally rich stuff – so much so that when the Apes make a final act stand for freedom on the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll shed tears over the self-sacrifice of one of their number. It’s also an intriguing look at humanity, none of whom come out as well as they could. The ‘good’ people – like Will and ape sanctuary worker Rodney – are kind but ineffective (everything Will does goes horrifically wrong, despite his best intentions). The ‘bad’ – Oyelowo’s money-first Drugs Company CEO or Cox and Felton as abusive ape sanctuary owners – are corrupt, selfish and greedy. No wonder the apes, stuck in a hole and only pulled out to be sold for drugs trials, feel so angry.

It’s not perfect. There are some clumsy, awkward homages to the original film (the worst being Felton shrieking “it’s a mad house!”) that don’t pay off. The human characters are at times two dimensional. But that doesn’t matter when the story-telling around the chimps is so superbly done. Wyatt fills the film with effects, but focuses so completely on character and emotion that it never feels like that for a moment. Rise is a small, intimate film about personal growth and a struggle for limited freedom. It helps make it a powerful and highly effective one – and easily superior to every Apes film made since 1968. A superb start to what became a wonderful trilogy.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

Harry and friends are on the run in the excellent Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Director: David Yates

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Brendan Gleeson (Mad-Eye Moody), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dursley), John Hurt (Mr Ollivander), Rhys Ifans (Xenophilius Lovegood), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Bill Nighy (Rufus Scrimgeour), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petunia Dursley), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Toby Jones (Dobby), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Peter Mullan (Yaxley), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), George Harris (Kingsley Shacklebolt), Clémence Poésy (Fleur Delacour), Domhnall Gleeson (Bill Weasley), Warwick Davies (Griphook), Nick Moran (Scabior), Guy Henry (Pius Thicknesse), David O’Hara (Albert Runcorn), Sophie Thompson (Malfada Hopkirk), Steffan Rhodri (Reg Cattermole), Simon McBurney (Kreacher)

The final book of the Harry Potter series made its own slice of film history: it was the first time a book was adapted in two films to “get the whole story of the book across” (or to make double the box office cash – take your pick). There was scepticism about creating a film about the first half (or so) of The Deathly Hallows, as a large chunk revolves around our heroes walking around the countryside, confused, lost and adrift. Instead, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 turns this material into one of the richest, most engaging and best films in the series. Any film that expands a throw-away reference from the books to Hermione removing her parents memories of her, into an affecting opening scene showing Emma Watson doing the same is really inventively playing with the original source material.

David Yates takes on his third Harry Potter film – and this is possibly the best he filmed. In fact, the whole film feels fresher and different – perhaps because it’s the only film to not have a single scene at Hogwarts. Instead our characters are out in the forest and on the run – and the film has completely different vibe, immediately lending it a uniqueness. Equally, it isn’t shy about pointing out our heroes are all-at-sea. Harry doesn’t really know what he is doing, or where to start with his self-imposed quest: and surely when Ron angrily asks why Dumbledore didn’t tell him more (or if Harry wasn’t even listening properly) he’s voicing some of the questions of the audience.

This film, more than any other, focuses on the relationship between the leading three characters. While getting an idea of their friendship and loyalty to each other, we also get a sense of the tensions and envy between them. Not least in Ron’s grudging acceptance that he is the number two. Rupert Grint has been slowly building under David Yates’ films from a comic relief character to an increasing (slightly surly) teenage insecurity and troubled sexual maturity. 

This really pays off in this film: Ron is bitter and jealous. These feelings might be exacerbated by the necklace the characters must take turns wearing, but it’s just bringing to the surface Ron’s darker feelings of inadequacy: and Yates even brings them to the screen in a necklace-induced vision of a naked (but artfully concealed in smoke!) Harry and Hermione alternately making out and rubbishing Ron. It’s a plot point that covers Ron overcoming his resentment and cementing his position in the gang. It’s very well done – and Rupert Grint is very good.

Equally good is the gently sad, mutually affectionate relationship between Harry and Hermione. Alone together for large chunks of the film, the characters’ bond is firmly established, the chemistry between the two actors never clearer. The film plays with the subplot it’s been suggesting for a while of a potential deeper relationship between Harry and Hermione: not least in its beautiful silent dancing sequence to Nick Cave in the tent (one of the best ever entirely invented scenes in the series) that is friendly, but with a hint of the possibility of something more – something the characters seem to consciously decide to bench. This sort of emotional reality is what makes the film really stand out. It turns the “camping trip” of the novel into something more profound and engrossing – I’d say this is the only sequence that really outdoes the books altogether in the entire series.

But of course there is still plenty of action, and humour, a highpoint for both being our heroes infiltrating the Ministry of Magic, disguised as ministry employees. Playing the adult disguises of our heroes brings out three hilarious and sharply observed physical performances from David O’Hara, Steffan Rhodri and Sophie Thompson. In fact, the film has a bit of a thing for disguises, from a disfigured Harry (who may or may not be recognised by Draco, in another piece of excellent acting from Tom Felton as a terminally out-of-his depth and terrified Malfoy), to the opening scenes featuring half the cast being disguised as Harry. Daniel Radcliffe excels in this sequence, playing versions of most of the young cast with real wit and skill.

Yates allows a creeping sense of imminent danger to hang over the whole picture, straight from the off. A “conference of baddies” at Malfoy manor shows us Voldemort (the ever sinister Ralph Fiennes) re-establishing his murderous villainy from the start – and also belittling and mocking poor Lucius Malfoy (a crushed Jason Isaacs). From there, via a gripping escape from Harry’s home, to a wedding scene that quickly collapses into a terrifying attack from Death Eaters, it’s a film full of excitement.

Yates shoots this with tension and edge. A sequence with Harry and company fleeing through the forest from snatchers is so well-done, so intense and immersive, that they used it for the poster. This sequence uses really interesting camera work and tracking shots – in fact the whole film is very well filmed and extremely well-paced. It’s also got an eye for the real nastiness of regimes like Voldemort’s: people like Umbridge (an increasingly Himmlerish Imelda Staunton) flourish, while bullying thugs like Yaxley (an intimidatingly excellent Peter Mullan) rule the roost.

Kloves script sets up a lot of the fascinating back-story from the novel, not only around Dumbledore but also the Deathly Hallows themselves (I’ll not mention for now that most of this build-up is fumbled in the last film). There is a beautiful animation sequence establishing the history of the Deathly Hallows, which is an artistic highlight. The slow unveiling and revealing of facts is wonderfully done – and rewards the patient viewer.

The film culminates in a final sequence at Malfoy manor that carries a great wallop of emotional torment and dread (first torture scene in a Potter movie for those interested…). Surprisingly a lot of this emotional force comes from Dobby the elf – irritating as he was in Chamber of Secrets, here he gets a few scenes that carry real emotional force. 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is possibly the only Harry Potter film that is an actual improvement on its original source material (there I said it). I think it’s a brilliant film, a film which carries real emotional weight and has genuine things to say, not just about good and evil, but also about the sort of teenage angst and yearnings we’ve all had. The three leads are all excellent, and there is barely a bum note in the whole thing.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Harry and Dumbledore prepare for war in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Director: David Yates

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Grainger), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Jim Broadbent (Horace Slughorn), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Gemma Jones (Madam Pomfrey), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), Natalia Tena (Tonks), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is perhaps the least stand-alone of the Harry Potter novels. Intended as a bridge into the final book (and carrying a lot of mystery), for obvious reasons it also has no Dumbledore-explains-the-plot-to-Harry chapter at the end (making it unique in the series). It also has the series’ least interesting MacGuffin – the identity of the Half-Blood Princehimself being considered of such little note here that it barely gets a mention in the film. But despite all this, the highly experienced Harry Potter crew deliver another exciting, dramatic and fully engaging film.

While I may not have thought David Yates was a natural film director, I have to say in this film his cinematic craft has really kicked into gear. There are images of fascinating depth and beauty here, and the film is beautifully shot by Bruno Delbonnel (Oscar-nominated). Like never before, Hogwarts seems like a place of inky greens and deep soulful shadows. The camera often allows characters’ faces to fill the middle of the frame, while still giving us depth of vision of the world around them. Carefully composed shots show the rich detail of plenty of objects, from dead birds to photographs. It’s a luscious film.

It also has a sad nostalgia to it: it feels like it’s about things coming to an end. Unlike any other film in the series, there are very few scenes of hi-jinks in Hogwarts. Comic relief characters like Neville and Hagrid are noticeable by their (mostly) absence. 

Instead the film looks at that sad half-way house between being a child and an adult. Or rather, the responsibilities and duties of an adult being thrust onto a child. Obviously Harry is scarcely ready to take on his mantle of chosen one – and feels bereft and lonely. But, in a neat contrast, Draco Malfoy is also being pushed into a task he is far too young for, and ill-suited to. The film could have actually made more of pulling out the contrasts between these two characters – although time is always at a premium in these films, with so much of Rowling’s plot to squeeze in.

Despite this, Tom Felton gives his finest performance in the series as a tortured and deeply scared Draco Malfoy, who for the first time seems like just a normal, insecure boy terrified of the dark acts he feels he has to do. The film gets a lot of emotional mileage out of this (more than it does, actually, from Harry’s predicaments) and Felton’s expressive agony and tearful lack of control for the first time make him someone we can relate to, and feel sorry for.

It also brings out different character traits in other characters, not least the protective side of Snape. Alan Rickman gets one of his meatiest roles in the series here, wonderfully playing multiple different emotions and motivations under a cold inscrutable surface. His character is a constantly intriguing shift of feelings – but it’s clear he does, in his way, care for Draco’s safety (just as he does for the other children in his care). Rickman also gives a brilliant sense of Snape’s moral uncertainty, and his every look suggest waves of emotion under tight control. It’s a wonderful performance of suggesting a lot under the surface while not doing a lot. Not to mention Rickman also manages to skilfully leave everything open for debate as to Snape’s true motives.

It’s striking how many of the series regulars come into prominence here. Not just Felton and Rickman, but this is also Gambon’s finest performance. By now Gambon had pretty much nailed Dumbledore, giving the part a great deal of compassion and quiet moral force. His sad urging for Draco to ask for his help near the end of the film is rather moving, as are the soft, sad tones Gambon drops throughout the film suggesting Dumbledore’s pain and guilt. Gambon gets a perfect balance between a twinkly charm and a quiet authoritativeness that works wonderfully.

Surprisingly however, what works less well is Harry’s plotline. Daniel Radcliffe is underpowered and slightly underwhelming, a little too sullen and sulky to really win our sympathy (Radcliffe himself has named this as his least favourite performance). It doesn’t help either that there is no chemistry between him and Bonnie Wright as Ginny Weasley. Wright, bless her, is not a strong actor and she constantly undersells each of these scenes – unable to bring the sort of bright, sexy playfulness her book equivalent has. Instead both she and Radcliffe feel sulky and awkward, and the romantic scenes between them (of which there are many) fall flat time and time again. Once you notice this total lack of spark between them you can’t see anything else!

Radcliffe has far more chemistry with Emma Watson – but she and Rupert Grint (along with many of the rest of the younger cast) have very little of any real consequence to do. The dysfunctional middle of the film, with Radcliffe and Wright flirting, drifts all the time, meaning the focus of the film zeroes in on the “adult-character” plots. Yates and screenwriter Steven Kloves do their best to add drama and excitement to a book where most of the dramatic high points are Dumbledore and Harry either watching memories, or Harry using a book to do much better at potions.

And by and large they succeed. Action sequences are added: the opening attack on the Millennium Bridge by Death Eaters is terrific, and there is an exciting (if totally plot free) attack by Death Eaters on the Weasley home. Yates again sells the moments of awe: there are some beautiful shots in Voldemort’s cave hideaway, and once again he makes Dumbledore’s power a true jaw-hits-the-floor moment. 

Half Blood Prince is beautifully filmed and well directed, even if one of its primary sub-plots doesn’t really work. There are some terrific performances: Felton, Rickman and Gambon possibly do their best work here, while Jim Broadbent is wonderfully funny but also touchingly sad and rumpled as Slughorn. It’s not Radcliffe’s finest hour, but it’s a film that works very well as an entrée to the series’ final arc. And it really captures a sense of morose sadness, mourning and regret wonderfully effectively – the final sequences carry real emotional weight. It’s a fine film – and one of Rowling’s favourites as it turns out.

Belle (2013)

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the mixed race daughter making waves in society in Amma Asante’s underwhelming pseudo-historical film Belle

Director: Amma Asante

Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Dido Elizabeth Belle), Tom Wilkinson (William Murray, Lord Mansfield), Sam Reid (John Davinier), Emily Watson (Lady Elizabeth Mansfield), Sarah Gadon (Lady Elizabeth Murray), Miranda Richardson (Lady Ashford), Penelope Wilton (Lady Mary Murray), Tom Felton (James Ashford), James Norton (Oliver Ashford), Matthew Goode (Captain Sir John Lindsay), Alex Jennings (Lord Ashford)

The British film industry produces a constant stream of costume dramas, many covering alarmingly similar ground on the aristocracy or wealthy of the Georgian period onwards. It’s to be commended then that Belle takes a similar plot, but from a radically different direction. Here, a famous real painting of a white and mixed-race pair of ladies becomes the jumping off point for a drama about an illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a wealthy family.

Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the daughter of naval captain and a slave in the West Indies. After his death, she his raised by her uncle William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), Earl of Mansfield, and his wife (Emily Watson) to raise her as their own alongside their niece Elizabeth (Sarah Gadron). Belle is treated as an equal among the family, but is not allowed to dine with guests or move freely in society. However, Belle has inherited a fortune from her father – unlike Elizabeth – and quickly finds herself a source of interest from the younger sons of the nobility. Meanwhile Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice, is asked to rule on the slave ship Zorg case (where slavers threw their slaves overboard in a storm), a case that brings passionate abolitionist John Davinier (Sam Reid) into Belle’s life and makes her start to re-evaluate society’s attitude to her.

Belle is a formulaic costume drama, given an imaginative twist by placing a black woman at its heart. It explores issues around the imbalanced attitudes of British society at the time (and since), and the hypocrisy and racism that bubbles under the surface of the British gentry. Belle is rejected by all and sundry – until knowledge of her wealth becomes known, at which point many of these objections are choked back to secure her money. The film gets much mileage out of Belle slowly comparing her position first to the black servants around her and then to the slaves who lost their lives on the Zorg.

However, what undermines Belle is that it is a work of fiction – and it feels like it’s hiding it. What we do know about the real Belle (which isn’t much) doesn’t relate at all to what we see in the film. She wasn’t an heiress. She didn’t fall in love with an abolitionist lawyer – Davinier was not the aspiring son of a cleric, but a French steward. Elizabeth probably wasn’t a penniless relative. Mansfield’s credentials as a proto-Abolitionist and reformer were never in doubt – by the time of the Zorg case he had already passed a ruling 10 years earlier that there was no basis for slavery in British law. Belle actually lived in Mansfield’s house until his death as effectively a housekeeper and semi-secretary (the very fate she rejects in the film). The film’s lack of interest in historical fact even affects small details – at one point James Norton’s pleasant but empty Oliver boasts his father has purchased him a commission as a Captain in the Navy, virtually the only institution in Georgian England which promoted solely on merit! (This annoyed me a lot more than it should have.) 

Belle is not a true story by a long stretch – but that doesn’t stop it proclaiming a “what happened next” series of captions at the end. It could have got away with this in a way other non-historical films have, if its story itself was more compelling. But instead Belle offers a merely serviceable story, offering a unique prospective on the aristocracy but largely using it to tell a fairly conventional “love across the social divide” story. Honestly, for large chunks of the film you could replace Belle with any slightly shameful second daughter, and the story would remain largely the same.

Which is a shame because it feels like it wastes something really interesting – and also wastes Mbatha-Raw’s star-making turn. She is excellent – sweet and naïve, but growing in confidence, determination and wisdom, gaining the strength of will to shape her own destiny. The film introduces interesting themes as Belle begins to question the attitudes of her family – do they accept her because they must? Would they be as open to a black stranger? – but these themes don’t quite coalesce into something really solid and coherent. Instead they are trotted out, but we don’t really feel we learn anything.

Similarly, the case of the slave ship Zorg seems rather loosely defined. We don’t get a real sense of public pressure or interest in the case, or really understand the essentials of what the case involved. Instead, it’s used primarily as a tool to question the attitudes of Lord Mansfield, and whether he has the ability to expand his obvious love for Belle into a wider statement of man’s equality. Tom Wilkinson is very good as Mansfield – prickly, but essentially decent and caring under a gruff surface – even if the role can hardly be a challenge for him. But the film doesn’t really manage to make a really compelling argument about what it is trying to say, other than slavery is of course bad.

Elsewhere, the film takes simple shots and shoots fish in the barrel. The Ashton family are introduced to stand in for British society. Lord Ashton is brisk and businesslike and interested only in maintaining the status quo. Lady Ashton – played by Miranda Richardson at her most coldly standoffish – only cares about securing wealth for sons. Of those sons, James Norton gets the most interesting part as the decent but shallow Oliver. Poor Tom Felton though: his character might as well be Draco Malfoy in period costume, all but spitting out ‘Mudblood’ at Belle. None of these performances offer anything different from what we’ve seen before.

That’s part of the problem with Belle – it wastes an interesting idea by slowly turning it into a more conventional story, primarily focused on who is Belle going to marry, rather than the implications of a black woman in a racist society, or the hypocrisy of that society being only willing to accept her when she has money. Despite some good acting – Penelope Wilton and Emily Watson also give tender performances – and a star-turn in the lead, it’s not really that interesting a film. You keep expecting it to burst into life, but it never does: for such a film offering a fresh perspective on history, you don’t feel like you’ve learned anything new about Georgian society at the end of it.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Daniel Radcliffe discovers dark goings on in the bowels of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Director: Chris Columbus

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Kenneth Branagh (Gilderoy Lockhart), John Cleese (Nearly Headless Nick), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Christian Coulson (Tom Riddle), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dusley), Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Miriam Margolyes (Professor Snout), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petrunia Dursley), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy),  David Bradley (Argus Filch), Toby Jones (Dobby), Gemma Jones (Madam Pomfrey), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), Julian Glover (Aragog)

Another movie, and time for another everyday school year for Harry and friends: classes, exams, sports days and saving the entire population of the school from a grisly death. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it right? So welcome to the second Harry Potter film, that mixes the fun of flying cars and tricky elves with giant spiders and ferocious snakes.

Chris Columbus and team went virtually straight from the first film into making this one, and it’s pretty clear they had learned a lot from the last one. Sure, Columbus is still a safe pair of hands rather than an inspired director, but there is a bit more flair from cast and crew here. It also manages to look a lot less like a primary colour explosion or an illustrated version of the book, and more like a piece of film-making. Maybe this can be attributed to new cinematographer Roger Pratt, who gives the film a far more imaginative palette of darks blacks mixed with beautiful core colours (no surprise he returned to shoot Goblet of Fire). In addition, both design and costumes are far more adult and less Dickensian-robey than I remembered (though there’s still a way to go until we get to the steampunk 50s look of Prisoner of Azkaban that would dominate the rest of the films).

It also helps that the introduction to the wizarding world was covered so well in the first film. In fact, this is the last film where anyone felt it necessary to shoe-horn recaps into the dialogue, reminding us of who (and what) everything is. A particular moment of irritance for me is the first entry of Dumbledore and McGonagall: met with Harry breathlessly saying their names – just in case you were one of those people who didn’t contribute to the $1billion the first film made worldwide, or who hadn’t read any of the books by this point.

Anyway, Columbus got the principles out of the way in the first film so he could focus a bit more on this slightly darker, more developed story (just as Rowling was able to do in the books). The mystery of the Chamber of Secrets is more compelling than that around the Philosopher’s Stone in Potter’s first outing, and this is the film where we properly meet the series antagonist Voldemort – here played with a smarmy, casual cruelty by Christian Coulsen (it’s a shame this didn’t lead to bigger things for Coulsen). Radcliffe gets the chance to get his teeth into a decent final confrontation – and also the series’ first big action set-piece, quite well-shot with a creepy menace – as he takes on a basilisk.

In fact Radcliffe is much stronger in this movie – more relaxed, more confident and embracing Harry’s essential decency and sense of honour (the qualities that are always duller to play as an actor). He’s still struggling a bit at the moments that call for real emotion – but he does very well here indeed. Most importantly, you believe him and everything he does – which is quite something for a child actor to accomplish. 

He gets more depth and range to play with than Rupert Grint who was already being shoehorned into being gurning comic relief. There are few faces Grint isn’t asked to pull in this movie – and get used to that sad-sack downward grin, or the teeth-clench of terror, because these are going to become major weapons in his arsenal. Watson doesn’t actually get a lot in this movie, but even by this point it was becoming clear that she was pretty much a perfect fit for the character. 

The series also confirmed it had great roles for the cream of British acting – and that it was going to be a fine pension plan for most of Equity. Jason Isaacs plays the wicked Lucius Malfoy with relish and a scowling, patrician pride – no wonder he became not only a regular in the series, but one of its champions. He’s very good here indeed, as is other new addition Mark Williams, a perfectly charming shambolic dad as Arthur Weasley.

The show however is carried off by Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart. Branagh offers a performance close to of self-parody of his public perception, as a swaggering self-promoter, a preening egotist who can’t help but brag about his (almost non-existent) achievements and accomplishments. Branagh is deliriously funny as Lockhart, not only getting a lion’s share of the best scenes, but also bringing out some delicious comic rebuttals from the rest of the teachers – not least Rickman and Smith – who clearly can’t stand Lockhart. It’s a great performance – cocky, old-Etonianesque, full of surface charm and puffed up pride, but with a nasty selfish mean steak just below the surface.

It all feels part of the generally more free and engaging direction this film takes compared to the first one. Some of the best actors from the first film get relegated in screentime, but it shows the greater confidence the filmmakers have in the kids. The film really begins to introduce the ideas of good vs evil and the principles of friendship, humanity and love that differentiate Harry from Voldemort. Columbus isn’t quite the director to bring all this together into an epic vision, but he is good enough to deal the cards effectively. He gives it enough pace and shine so that we are never bored, though we’re also never wowed.

Despite the increased darkness and greater emotional depth, Columbus never loses track of the sense that he is making a family entertainment. He may still not be able to bring an artistic flourish to events, but he balances the light and dark very well. Not least the fact that the racism under the surface of the wizarding world emerges here. In the first film Voldemort alone was the villain, but in this one we first hear the term “mud blood” bandied about to describe Muggle-borns. We also find out that the wizarding world has its own slave class in elves (given a sometimes irritating Jar-Jar Binks-lite face by Dobby, a character with far more appeal to the kids than the parents). These are complex ideas – and all part of the world becoming richer.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is still in the lower tier of Harry Potter films, but it’s a significant step-up from the first film. Visually it’s richer and more interesting. The stakes are higher, the themes deeper and more intriguing. It’s still very much a children’s film, and it still inclines towards being an over-faithful adaptation – it’s a bum-numbing 2 hours and 40 minutes so keen is it to not leave anything out – but this has far stronger material in it than the first film, and is a sure sign that this series was building a foundation it could flourish from.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

Daniel Radcliffe gets sorted in the first of the franchise Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Director: Chris Columbus

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), John Cleese (Nearly Headless Nick), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dusley), Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore), Ian Hart (Professor Quirrell), John Hurt (Mr Ollivander), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petrunia Dursley), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy),  Zoe Wanamaker (Madame Hooch), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Warwick Davis (Filius Flitwick)

In 2001, I was in my first year at university. I went to the cinema to watch this new, much-hyped children’s-fantasy film. I’d never heard of this Harry Potter fella going into it – so must have been one of the few people watching who was coming to it completely fresh. I was swept up in the film’s story when I first saw it. But how does it stand up watching it again decades later?

Well it’s a long bloody film. I was actually amazed this is nearly two-and-a-half hours long. Strewth. I mean this is the slightest and most childlike of Rowling’s books. Did it really need such a bum-numbing run-time to bring it to the screen?  I guess it needed a lot of that time, because there is a heck of a lot of backstory and wizarding world to introduce very early on – and the film explains this in very careful, loving detail. 

But Columbus’ world building here is excellent. I think it’s easy to forget how much pressure must have been riding on this film. How many imaginations worldwide did this need to satisfy? Not only that, but this had to cater for, and build towards, a host of sequels, some of which hadn’t even been written yet (other than in Rowling’s brilliant mind). But the film succeeded in bringing this wizarding world enchantingly to life. There is a delight in every magical sequence, or trick, produced in the film – so many that poor Daniel Radcliffe must have swiftly exhausted his repertoire of “awe-inspired” faces. But the film’s loving reconstruction of the world of the book is perfect, and the fact that it not only didn’t alienate people, but that so much of it has become integral to the popularity of the books as well, says a lot.

Later films would get more daring and imaginative in bringing book to screen – with Rowling’s full support – but this first one probably did need to hew pretty close to the original book in order to hook and secure that fan-base. So while Kloves’ screenplay may feel at time like a mixture of transcription and rewording rather than a true work of adaptation, it meets the needs of this first film.

The design elements of the film were also spot on. Much of the wizarding world would be radically overhauled design-wise in The Prisoner of Azkaban, but the foundations are all here. John Williams’ score was also pretty much perfect from the start so winningly constructed and so perfectly matched with the mood of the book that it has also become an integral part of the Harry Potter world.

But, watching the film back, it’s clear still that this is one of the weakest films in the series. Part of this is of course is that it’s also the most simple and childish of the books – Rowling would immeasurably enrichen and deepen the series with each book – but when placed in context with the rest of the franchise efforts, this does seem like a brighter, more colourful, Roald Dahlish, traditional children’s film. Again, a lot of this is faithful replication of the book – but considering how children embraced the later more emotionally mature films, it would not have been a disaster to include more of that material here.

The other main issue with the film is quite simply that it is averagely directed and rather mundanely filmed. It’s a bit of a shock to be reminded that Oscar-winning photographer John Searle shot this film, as it’s ludicrously over-bright and conventionally framed. In fact, it lacks any real visual interest at all, looking more like a child’s picture book than any form of motion picture. There is hardly a shot or visual image in the film that sticks in my head – and I am literally writing this as the credits roll on the movie. As a piece of visual storytelling, it’s pretty mundane.

Similarly, Chris Columbus is a solid but uninspired film maker. He marshals events on camera with a reliably safe pair of hands, unspectacular and undemonstrative. But he doesn’t have any real dynamism as a film maker – perhaps that’s why the material never really feels like his own. When the series did have a film maker with vision in Alfonso Cuaron (in Prisoner of Azkaban), the difference in imagination and vision was immediately striking – so much so the two directors who followed Cuaron effectively trod in his footprints.

But Columbus may well have been what this franchise needed at this stage: a safe pair of hands, who could work with the studio and the producers and shepherd to the screen a series of films that would be running for over a decade. Much as other names bandied around to direct at the time would have been better film-makers, I can’t imagine them having the “safe pair of hands” quality that Columbus did, providing the solid foundation from which the series could later grow – let’s be honest could you imagine Terry Gilliam successfully kick-starting a huge-franchise series like this?

And let’s not forget either the casting gifts Columbus left the film-makers with here. Have three child stars ever been better chosen than Radcliffe, Grint and Watson? And indeed all the other young actors, all but one of whom stayed with the series to the end? The triumph of choosing not just the talent, but the level headedness, was quite something. And the three actors here are very good. 

Grint probably wasn’t better than he was here – his natural comic timing becoming an overused tool in later films, but here he’s charming, likeable and endearing. Watson is raw but a good mix of know-it-all and vulnerable feeling. Radcliffe gets a rough ride in a hugely challenging part – and yeah he’s not yet an actor here – but he does very well, considering how often he is called on to look amazed, and how many deep feelings of isolation, loneliness and confusion he is called upon to show during the film. Not one kid in a thousand could do what he does here. Columbus got magnificent work from the entire child cast – and that alone is enough to give him a pass.

The adult cast is of course pretty much perfect. Robbie Coltrane is a stand-out as a loveable Hagrid, immensely cuddily and endearingly sweet – perfect casting. Rickman was of course similarly inspired casting, Smith was perfect, Harris an unusual choice but one that worked. Ian Hart’s twitchy nervousness gets a bit wearing, but it’s not an easy part. Griffiths and Shaw embrace the cartoonish Roald-Dahl-bullying of the Dursleys. Pretty much every casting choice is spot on.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is the least deep and rich of the Harry Potter films, but it had a hell of a difficult job to do. And what I have to remember is that I was one of the uninitiated who sat in the cinema to watch it and needed all that introduction. Any film that has to get Muggles like me up-to-speed while keeping the die-hard fans happy faces a very difficult task. I think you can say, for all the later films surpassed it, that Philosopher’s Stone managed that in spades.

A United Kingdom (2016)

Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo are a love match in underwhelming A United Kingdom

Director: Amma Asante

Cast: David Oyelowo (Seretse Khama), Rosamund Pike (Ruth Williams Khama), Terry Pheto (Naledi Khama), Vusi Kunens (Tshekedi Khama), Jack Davenport (Alistair Canning), Laura Carmichael (Muriel Williams-Sanderson), Jack Lowden (Tony Benn), Tom Felton (Rufus Lancaster), Charlotte Hope (Olivia Lancaster), Nicholas Lyndhurst (George Williams), Anastasia Hille (Dot Williams)

Some films just have a safe, crowd pleasing, “your whole family would like it” feel to them. A United Kingdom falls very neatly into this category. It’s a simple and straightforward story, told with a cosy safety that won’t challenge you or really stick in your memory.

Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), heir to the throne of the Bamangwato tribe in what will become Botswana, is studying law in England in the late 1940s to prepare for his reign. He meets and falls in love with London girl Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) – and despite the protests of their families and their nations, they marry and resolve to build a life in his country working for the betterment of his people. But first they must overcome what seem insurmountable obstacles.

A United Kingdom is a very well-meaning film. It has an important story to tell about acceptance and prejudice. Many of the points it makes about the negative reactions to mixed race marriages and colonial politics are still painfully relevant today. It’s an earnest and good-hearted film. It’s just a real shame that it’s also not that special.

It’s well acted by the two leads, we can give it that. Sure they are presented as almost flawless individuals, but David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are engaging performers and give a lot of emotional weight to the story. Their courtship is sweetly hesitant and their relationship feels real and lived in. Oyelowo brings much of the magnetic charisma he has shown in a wide range of films to the part, and Pike’s neat mixture of prim Englishness, decency and stubborn self-determination work really well.

But the story it so simply done, the whole thing feels like a TV movie of the week. The film is flatly directed and conventionally shot: London is always dark, filmed through a blue lens, with rainwater or fog dripping off every shot. Africa by contrast is a vibrant, orange lensed place where every sunset and sunrise looks like a painting. Very few shots show much more imagination than that. There is no flair or originality to the cinematography, the composition of the shots, or even the musical score (which swells up stirringly at emotional moments and then fades instantly from memory). On every technical level, it can boast nothing more impressive than workman-like competence.

The narrative is equally simplistic: our heroes fall in love, deal with rejection, passionate speeches are made, allies are slowly won over and a deus ex machina finally makes everything fine. The stakes of what Seretse is putting at risk through his marriage are never made completely clear, despite all the talk of digging and diamonds. The final resolution of the entire problem is so simplified, contrived and rushed I almost had to double check the runtime to see if I missed anything. It’s all part of the same simplification in the story that sees sides change with confusing speed – Seretse’s sister goes from rejecting Ruth to treating her like a sister in a blink; Ruth’s father (distractingly played by Nicholas Lyndhurst, forever Rodney) is given one moment in a cinema to switch from prejudiced British working man to repentant father.

The characters themselves are very plainly drawn: they are either goodies or baddies with no attempt made to look at the deeper feelings or motivations behind them. For instance, Seretse’s uncle is shown as simply outraged by the marriage, with no attempt to explore why a marriage like this may not have been seen as ideal in a fragile community, or how it might have made holding a deal with the UK together difficult. Similarly, the Brit characters are almost to a man mustachio twirlers or bitchy mem-sahibs, callously sipping sherry as they thwart Seretse and Ruth’s plans. (Spare a thought for poor Tom Felton, yet again hired to play Draco Malfoy In A Different Historical Costume.)  Even Clement Attlee (so regularly beautified as the Prime Minister who oversaw the creation of the Welfare State and NHS) is portrayed here as a cold-hearted architect of realpolitik.

By making its lead characters so saintly and pure, and anyone who disagrees with them so cruel and sunk in villainy, the film weakens itself. Yes it has a sweet relationship at the middle, but it also manages to make this feel slightly lightweight, because the film itself is so flimsy. When their opponents are such cartoonish baddies, and their aims for their country so unclearly explained, it minimises the impact of the story. Instead of showing us the birth of a modern, democratic nation through the focal point of one couple’s struggle against prejudice and adversity, it makes both personal and national triumphs feel actually less impressive than they were – no more than a Sunday afternoon, Mills & Boon tale of a working class London girl and a handsome, “exotic” stranger.

A United Kingdom is an important story that has made itself into a slight one, a conventionally filmed and simplistically told tale that never carries the weight and impact it should do. Despite good performances from the leads, it’s really nothing special.