The fourth offering in the Harry Potter franchise sees The Boy Who Lived and his chums trying to get through another year at the increasingly dangerous Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft And Wizardry. This means, as ever, secrets and treachery within, hostilities with classmates and life-threatening magical sports days. New to the mix is the embarrassing reality of tortured adolescence, with sexual awakenings and brooding mood-swings exacerbated by the added distraction of glamorous foreign exchange students. Making quite the grand entrance are the chic girls of Beauxbatons Academy and the hunky boys of Durmstrang Institute. Welcome to Harry Potter And The Rampaging Hormones.
This is certainly not a movie for young children, however engaging its characters and comic touches. Teen angst and relationship problems are pretty boring if you’re six. But it’s not the burgeoning sexuality that’s landed the picture its 12A certificate, rather its genuinely darker vein of fantasy horror. For the maturing Potter core audience this is well-developed, with teasing terrors and skin-crawling set-pieces as the dark Lord Voldemort rises again — as all dark lords must, it seems, DLs notoriously being even harder to kill totally dead than the nut-job in Halloween. (Quite why Lord V. is so preoccupied with plotting against the promising pipsqueak Harry is presumably something to be clarified for cinema audiences in the fullness of time.)
Mike Newell, as the first British director entrusted with a series entry, oversees plenty of spiffing special-effects action — the Quidditch World Cup final, a dragon fight, an underwater sequence and Gary Oldman’s (all-too-brief) fiery apparition — but as one would expect, he does a good job with the more personal, realistic emotional content, bringing on the young leads’ performances noticeably in the process. So it’s a shame that he’s less successful in handling the necessary novel-to-screen compression.
Even though Newell’s adaptation runs to more than two-and-a-half hours, the book is such a doorstopper that screenwriter Steve Kloves had to ditch more material this time around. Harry’s annual confinement with his ghastly Dursley relations and Hermione’s house-elf-liberation campaign is gone. While he was at it, it’s a pity he didn’t also delete tabloid hackette Rita Skeeter — however much one likes Miranda Richardson — since she obviously functions as author J. K. Rowling’s dig at celebrity-stalking gossips, adding nothing more than running-time the story doesn’t need.
As it is, there’s too much contrasting material with which to contend: the life-or-death challenges of the Triwizard competition are interspersed with a host of new characters and their sinister or serio-comic sub-plots, school lessons, the agenda of yet another eccentric new Defence Against The Dark Arts professor in Brendan Gleeson’s fierce Mad-Eye Moody, Potter sidekick Ron’s sulks, swotty Hermione’s makeover and Harry’s blushing attempts to ask a girl to a dance…
Consequently, the story editing goes through some distinctly choppy patches. It looks as if several scenes were filmed at greater length, surviving in quick snippets that are frequently unnecessary. The movie Newell set out to make — eccentric comedy-cum-Hitchcockian conspiracy — can only be glimpsed briefly, before that beast of a plot charges back into shot, demanding attention.
Thankfully, most of it is pulled together towards the end. It’s no secret that Ralph Fiennes handles the long-awaited appearance of evil Voldemort himself, and thankfully his big scene is sensationally creepy, ensuring strong anticipation for frights to come.