Mark Steyn

Missing Magic

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Formula gets a bum rap from critics, but I’m rather partial to it myself. In the Bond movies, it’s pretty much the best bits — take out the flirting with Moneypenny, Q going ‘Pay attention, 007’, Shirley Bassey bellowing the theme song over silhouettes of dolly birds gyrating round giant pistols, and what’s left isn’t that interesting. J.K. Rowling’s decision to revive the English school story in supernatural form lent an instant shape to the Harry Potter adventures and, although I’ve never read a word of the books (for the same reason as Julie Burchill refuses to visit America, on the grounds that everybody else already has), I liked the way that on screen they settled instantly into Bond-like conventions: for example, the pre-term opening sequence of Harry suffering the summer hols at Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon’s house.

That’s been nixed in this fourth outing of the series, which is bad news for those who enjoyed their five minutes of Fiona Shaw and Richard Griffiths. I gather lots of stuff got chopped out of the final version, and maybe they were among the deleted scenes. But, whatever the reason, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire begins with a dark nightmare prologue featuring a sarcophagus, a slithering snake and Eric Sykes as an unfortunate janitor. Having gotten the series up and running, Chris Columbus is now happy to let other directors ring their own variations — this time round, Mike Newell of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame, though the fame all went to Hugh Grant and Richard Curtis. Unlike Four Weddings, a film so confident in its structure it declares it in the title, Goblet of Fire runs two-and-a-half hours without ever finding its groove.

Newell has retained one or two regular features — the annual introduction of a new teacher to Hogwarts, this time Professor Moody, played by Brendan Gleeson and looking like Charlie Drake reflected through a funhouse mirror. But in abandoning other conventions — Julie Walters seeing Ron and co. off at the station, etc. — he’s lost sense of the dramatic shape. The film certainly splurges on the big set pieces — the Quidditch World Cup, Harry going mano a mano with some badass dragon, etc. On our letters page the other week, Helen Johns mocked me for my remarks about the anachronistic England of Wallace & Gromit: ‘Mark Steyn is quite right,’ she wrote. ‘In the whole of the north of England there is probably not a single person who runs a business with their dog or turns into a giant rabbit at the full moon. Why would anyone want to watch something so obviously made up?’ Very droll. But even ‘made up’ stories have to exist in their own organic reality, and Harry Potter’s England seems much more of a fully conceived entity. Look at that big Quidditch final: obviously, it’s a ‘made up’ game, but as visualised by Newell — with fans ooh-ing and ah-ing at the giant stadium super-projection of the star Eastern European players, etc. — it looks like what it’s meant to be, a contemporary staging of an ancient tradition. Like a 2005 Wimbledon or FA cup final, you get the past and present jostling together, the sense that this world pre-dates the beginning of the movie. It’s very hard to do that: you certainly don’t get it with George Lucas’s Star Wars Senate chamber, to which the stadium for the TriWizard cup bears a superficial resemblance.

But, as fully realised as they are visually, dramatically the big set pieces play a little sluggish. ‘I love magic!’ yells a gleeful Harry after some effect or other. But the line is the most explicit recognition of the film’s main deficiency: you have to be told this is all very magical, because it doesn’t feel very magical.

The plot is a thinnish one in which Hogwarts finds itself playing host to some blonde cloched demoiselles from Beauxbatons Academy and some butch Cossacks under a Rasputinesque mentor from the Durmstrang Institute, against whose finest Harry is mysteriously entered as the fourth wizard in the TriWizard cup. The competition has various rounds — dragon slaying, underwater terrors, etc. —but Newell struggles to put any real narrative drive into the episodes. For what it’s worth, my kids enjoyed the little human touches most: Malfoy’s transfiguration into a ferret, the twins giggling at Ron being forced to waltz with Professor McGonagall. ‘Place your hand on my waist,’ commands Maggie Smith. ‘Where?’ he gasps, gulping in horror.

This is part of the build-up to the big Hogwarts ball, a fairly transparent attempt to interpolate an American Prom Night into English boarding-school life. Nothing wrong with that, but with Jarvis Cocker turning up to front the house band I was beginning to feel cameo-ed out: Eric Sykes, Miranda Richardson as a tarty tabloid hackette, Ralph Fiennes as a baldemort Voldemort looking like the English Patient unbandaged. Is there anyone who hasn’t done a walk-on in Harry Potter? Was that Boris Johnson pogo-ing with Prince Edward in the rave sequence? It’s a terrible waste of most of the talent: Alan Rickman’s Snape is reduced to an occasional lip-purse and eyebrow-arch.

Insofar as there’s a broader theme, it’s that our three chums are growing up, and hormones are a-ragin’. Hermione (Emma Watson) descends the staircase to the Yule ball as a radiant young lady. I don’t recall whether Ron (Rupert Grint) ejaculates ‘Bloody hell!’ at this point, though he does every six minutes throughout the rest of the movie. She’s showing signs of being sweet on him, and he’s too lumpy and laddish to spot it. Miss Watson and Master Grint are kicking loose and having fun with their evolving characters. It’s Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry who’s the wet blanket, stuck with the single-note bespectacled earnestness he perfected in the first movie but unable to convey much of the wit or daring or self-doubt or inspiration the young wizard shows in the book. Given the series’ increasing dependence on gazillion-dollar computerised effects, you’d think post-production could run him up a couple of extra facial expressions.

© Mark Steyn, 2005