Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

USA, 2002. Rated PG. 161 minutes.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Kenneth Branagh, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Shirley Henderson, Miriam Margolyes, Tom Felton, Jason Issacs, Julie Waters, Mark Williams
Writers: Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling
Music: John Williams, adapted and conducted by William Ross
Cinematographer: Roger Pratt
Producers: David Heyman, Tanya Seghatchain
Director: Chris Columbus


Grade: B+ Review by Frances Nicole Rogers

For the past few months there's been hype surrounding the growing maturity of the Harry Potter franchise--the script material was getting darker, the movies were getting edgier, the audience was growing older, and the child stars were growing with them. Do believe the hype: The stars are aging rapidly (star Daniel Radcliffe's voice has gone from Billy Gillman to Barry White in just one year), and the material is getting darker (if you think spiders and snakes are creepy, try the soul-sucking Dementors of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and death and dismemberment in just one scene of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). If the filmmakers continue to stay faithful to the books, the ratings of future Harry Potter movies is a very pressing issue.

Already there was concern that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second in the book and movie franchise, would be rated PG-13 instead of PG because of its subject matter. Anyone who read the books wouldn't doubt such worry was legitimate - Chamber of Secrets includes many pleasant things like prejudice, genocide, blood-written messages, giant spiders, giant snakes, and a violent Bludger during a rough game of Quidditch. The question of whether small children could handle such heavy material was justified. Reading the text and forming foggy images in one's brain isn't nearly the same as seeing fully realized visuals on the realistic silver screen.

The story takes place during Harry Potter's (Radcliffe) second year at Hogwarts, after what could possibly have been the worst summer he's ever spent with his dreadful relatives, the Dursleys. Preceding the heavy house arrest placed on Harry, a house-elf named Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones) warns the young wizard that Hogwarts will no longer be safe for him this year. Harry, ignoring Dobby's warnings, bulldozes his way back to Hogwarts with determination after his best friend, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) "rescues" him via a turquoise flying Ford Anglia.

Initially the only danger at Hogwarts appears to be Harry's loopy new teacher, Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), a best-selling author and wizard personality. However, not even the screw-ups performed regularly by Lockhart can compare to the eerie things that start to happen. Harry starts to hear an icy, disembodied voice through the Hogwarts corridors, and several Hogwarts students begin to turn up "petrified." Rumors surface about a "Chamber of Secrets" hidden somewhere in Hogwarts, created by Salazar Slytherin, the unfriendliest of the school's four founders. The culprit behind the attacks is thought to be the Heir of Slytherin, the only one who can open the Chamber and control the rumored monster within. Harry quickly becomes the prime suspect.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is how author J.K. Rowling draws a parallel between Harry Potter and Tom Marvolo Riddle (Christian Coulson), a mysterious character who attended Hogwarts fifty years before Chamber of Secrets takes place. They are foils, both similar and different at the same time. Rowling also does a great job in writing the alienation, distrust, and suspicion of Harry Potter as the school begins to think that he is the Heir of Slytherin. The reasons behind Harry's alienation help build his character and force the reader to question Harry as much as he questions himself. Kloves has failed to repeat this effect in the movie, instead opting to create a crowd-pleaser which only focuses on the surface of Chamber of Secrets instead of the substance. Any possible development in character, plot, and theme is sacrificed. Tom Riddle, for example, becomes a mere two dimensional character, rather than the complex entity he was in the book because his background story is written out. The only good thing about the script is its humor.

Unlike the first movie, however, it's even harder still to rip Kloves and Columbus to shreds because, mangled as their Chamber of Secrets may be, it's still highly entertaining and clearly addresses some of the problems of the first film. The performance of lead Daniel Radcliffe is an excellent example of how much things have improved from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I can attest to his growth as an actor after having one of my many viewings of Chamber of Secrets in front of a packed house on opening night, where the mostly adult crowd responded warmly to him. Radcliffe just oozes charisma, is perfect as Harry, and can hold his own against talented actors like Coulson (whose performance as Riddle was possibly the best in the film). Compare this to Sorcerer's Stone, where Radcliffe was being upstaged by everyone and everything on the same frame.

The visual liberties Columbus has taken with this film works to his benefit, more so than the stiff point-and-shoot method in Sorcerer's Stone. Even better, the visuals highlight what this production got right with the book series. Things may not be exactly as they're described in the books, but they never ring false. The opening shot alone demonstrates just how bad it is to live with the Dursleys. However, Columbus can get overzealous with the camera, especially during one needlessly surrealistic flashback scene.

The returning adult cast members are given scarcely anything to work with. Chris Columbus was right, this movie did need more Alan Rickman, though his Snape loses some of the allure that made his performance so appealing last year. The only adult actors whose performances haven't diminished are Dame Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, Robbie Coltrain as Hagrid, and the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore. It is the newcomers (Issacs, Branagh, and Coulson) who steal the show. The only reason why anyone would like Lucius Malfoy and Gilderoy Lockhart is because Issacs and Branagh play them so well.

As for the young'uns, Radcliffe, Grint, and Emma Watson (who plays the overemphasized Hermione Granger), all are developing well, though Grint's comic zaniness might grate on some people's nerves. Tom Felton, who plays Draco Malfoy, disappoints after a perfectly fine performance in Sorcerer's Stone. Someone please tell this boy that eyebrow raising is not intimidating.

A surprising improvement in Chamber of Secrets has been John William's score. He was too busy, apparently, to write a new score for Chamber of Secrets, thus wrote some new themes and left the rest to William Ross (who earlier this year wrote the wonderful score to Tuck Everlasting). The random Herrmannesque moments in the score are a nice touch (because everyone's feeling very Herrmann-y this year), but even more impressive is the positively chilling, dark, and brilliant "Chamber of Secrets" theme Williams has developed.

The Harry Potter series is getting better. There are, of course, certain things the filmmakers need to sort out before Harry Potter can really contest with movies like Lord of the Rings. As a piece of entertainment, though, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets doesn't disappoint. Yes, there's loads out there that's higher in quality than Harry Potter (like Lord of the Rings); but what makes Harry Potter so great is its ability to transcend, to be intelligent yet crowd pleasing at the same time.

Review © December 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images 2002 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

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