Why ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ is So Remarkable – Part 2/2: Performance & Narrative

First part (direction): https://robsfocuspull.blog/2017/07/10/why-the-prisoner-of-azkaban-is-so-remarkable-part-12-direction/

In the first part I discussed Alfonso Cuaron’s vision and his stamp on the film.  I think ultimately he is the reason the film is so brilliant; however there are other cogs in the wheel.  These other cogs, in a broad sense, are performance and narrative – two things that are arguably the most important in deeming a film a success.  A poor narrative leads a film to be boring and poor performances lead a film to be unwatchable.  Azkaban has both a strong narrative and strong performances, so mix that in with some arty Cuaron-ness and it adds up to a remarkable movie.

J.K Rowling is extremely precious about her work, and fairly so.  Instead of being discarded when the rights were bought for her books, she was brought into the fold.  It’s clear she backed away through most of the films creation but certainly didn’t let them get away with anything that wasn’t a part of her imagination.  The third book in her series, and for me one of the weakest, was published in 1999 two years before the first film even came out.  It’s a strange thing because I view all the potter books very differently.  After re-reading them, I see them more and more as children’s books.  The dialogue is a little scratchy and some of the story telling is painfully basic.  Yet they are still clearly well written and I would say The Order of the Phoenix and The Deathly Hallows are extraordinary pieces of work.  Azkaban however is just a little too infantile at times for me, and obviously is going to be different re-reading it as a 19 year old and being plagued by a love for the movie.  The book almost has the exact same beats as the film, as it’s the last of the shorter novels.  Therefore Rowling’s mind is definitely on top form, despite some dull writing, as the plot is complex and meaningful.

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Narrative

It’s hard to congratulate a particular person on good narrative pacing, as a massive budget film usually has about thirty people behind it.  The writer credited is Steve Kloves, who adapted all the Potters apart from Order.  He is clearly a talented guy, because he manages to slim away any shaky dialogue and keep a quick movement by movement plot in all of the films.  Azkaban is a particular feat because there is so much plot going on.  Right from the start it is very different from the first two films and getting to Hogwarts is a Potter cliché and the first two films set that in stone.  This then leads to the typical Potter narrative, which goes as follows: arrive at Hogwarts in a funky way, listen to some kind of warning that’s going on in the school, go to classes and do wizardry stuff, discover something about the warning, develop a plan, more school wizardry stuff (Quidditch perhaps), then a final climatic battle or problem to overcome (wizards chess and the snake etc).  As the films go on this gets cloudier, especially in Goblet because the Tri-Wizard cup brings in a whole new narrative structure.  Consequently when Azkaban sub verses this, it’s very refreshing.  First off, because getting to Hogwarts is put into jeopardy straight away, because Harry has to get there himself.  It’s then a beautifully choreographed and funny travel set piece with the night bus.  Then even before the obligatory train ride, we have moments of calm outside of Hogwarts, where Harry gets that warning that’s going on this year (Sirius Black).  And even then, on the train, it is grounded to a halt by the baddies and we are introduced to a beloved character (the Dementors & Lupin).  I hope you get what I’m trying to say at this point, which is that Azkaban dismisses and plays with that classical Potter structure.  It toys with the source material, holding on drama and expressing it in a new way.

Moving on towards the ending as it of course has two of them.  The time turner, the most plot device written plot device in history, but so wonderfully done.  I still remember being shocked that there was another 20 minutes left in the film because they have to go back in time.  My small brain couldn’t quite fathom that they were going to answer some of the questions that had been built up.  It is mesmerising, it really is, that we get to relive a plot that has already gripped us.  From a different angle we see the story unfold, and so much more depth is added.  The characters (Harry & Hermione) begin to understand what actually is going on, and just how special Harry is in this world.  Cuaron has already masterfully balanced key scenes, and now the plot pulls it along to an exciting resolution.  The narrative in this film is exciting, and somewhat original, meaning that on a story basis it leaves most other blockbuster films behind.

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Performance

In this narrative, you have diverse characters played by diverse actors.  It’s a constant in Potter films, great Rowling creations played by a host of British actors.  This film in particular boasts an outrageously good cast with Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, Emma Thompson and Michael Gamdon coming into the series.  Oldman especially sits at the top of the helm in a challenging role.  He is conflicted, going quickly from bad to good and is very much a mentor to Daniel Radcliffe.  Radcliffe himself has stated how after working with Oldman he decided to pursue acting properly.  Sirius Black is the drive of the film and the emotional draw, so a legend had to be brought in and he did a perfect job of it.  David Thewlis comes in to play probably his now most infamous role, another conflicted character in Professor Lupin – a man shrouded in guilt but full of care and hope.  He plays him in a messy, rugged look; he’s imperfect but pragmatic.  Thewlis makes him likeable due to his soft nature yet a lean to the anti-hero because of his aggression and obvious darker side.  These two characters together have unbelievable chemistry and give a great sense of the friendship before with Harry’s parents.  It’s these top level actors that create such clarity in the story and allow the younger cast to develop their skills.

Like I said, Oldman was deeply influential on Radcliffe and I believe he still is today.  Harry has to be far more mature in this film and Radcliffe handles it well, cautiously not overacting in dramatic moments.  For example he is quiet when Oldman is present, allowing him to lead the scenes.  And when he has to be centre stage, he controls it well, such as when he reveals to Ron & Hermione that Sirius was one of his parent’s friends.  In my mind this is when Radcliffe becomes the proper leading man of the series and appears as a competent actor.  He is given pretty tough material and not once does he seem out of his depth.  His co stars improve on themselves as well, with Rupert Grint nailing his comedic timing and Emma Watson becoming much fiercer.  She is no longer the annoying know-it-all but a force to be reckoned with, and spars well with Radcliffe in the more intense scenes.  What is remarkable about the three’s performances is how real and convincing it is, combining well with the existing world building Cuaron has put into place.  The director got very close to the actors on this film and suggested they really get to know their characters inside out; it shows.

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In conclusion, the acting in the film ties well with the solid narrative.  It is an intriguing plot that requires some tricky portrayals, but all is dealt with well.  With this set of actors comes a fantastic chemistry that is carried throughout the rest of the series.  It is at this point that the franchise takes a turn south to become the breathtaking story that it is.  Daniel Radcliffe has since played some incredible roles and Cuaron has since made some incredible movies.  Their connection in this film makes it remarkable alone.  I think in these two short completely un-researched essays I have touched the surface on the magic of this film, maybe one day I’ll write a book about it, giving me chance to scour all corners of its genius.

 

Why ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ is So Remarkable – Part 1/2: Direction

The Harry Potter franchise is synonymous with global culture of the last 20 years.  Since the first books release in 1997, it has took the world by storm.  Today, Harry Potter sits alongside Coca Cola and OK as a globally known use of language.  The third film The Prisoner of Azkaban was the first one that I saw in the cinema and I couldn’t have been older than 7.  Back then it captured by imagination and it still flaws me today.  Every single Potter film has its own merit and they are all expertly made, however there is something about this film that makes it very special.  The opening two films, directed by Chris Columbus, made over 1.8billion US dollars combined, meaning that Columbus has set up the franchise.  He had successfully created the world, and introduced the characters; however it was all a very light affair.  They were very much in the vein of children’s fantasy films, with a little edge thanks to the source material.  So why after the success of the first films did producers switch to Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron?  Why go for a visionary from a different continent?  Whatever the answer is (we may never know) it was worth the plunge.

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Cuaron began his career in Mexican television, about 7 years before the release of the first Potter book.  His first film, Solo Con Tu Pareja was released in 1991 and went on to win many festival awards.  It was defined as a ‘sex comedy’ and told the story of a womanizing businessman who is fooled into believing he has contracted aids.  After that he went on to direct his first feature produced in the US: The Little Princess, a film that focuses on a young girl sent to a boarding school in New York City during World War Two.  The film was critically acclaimed and gained two Oscar nominations (Cinematography and Art direction), however flopped at the box office.  This acclaim brought him into the attention of American producers and soon he was directing a new adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic Great Expectations.  His version certainly had the sexual thread that lines a lot of his work and also boasted some interesting performances from Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow.  Overall, it received mixed reviews and didn’t really cement his spot as a top director and so for his next film he returned home to direct Y Tu Mama Tambien.  An infamous film, due to its controversial open portrayal of sex and love, it was a massive success both critically and commercially.  It is a film that I am always thinking about, with some stunning Emmanuel Lubeski (frequent partner of Cuaron) cinematography and some really intriguing themes.  This is where it gets interesting, because his next film was The Prisoner of Azkaban.

David Heyman was undoubtedly taking a risk with Cuaron.  So far, he had made four films, two not in the English language and two that were flops.  He certainly had shown his skill as a director with Y Tu Mama Tambien, which is without question a gorgeous film.  Yet, he didn’t seem quite the fit for a massive budgeted franchise film.  Harry Potter was still in its infancy yes, but one thing was very clear, JK Rowling’s vision took paramount.  I can only imagine her reaction when they told her they were going down a daring route with the new director.  So in comes Cuaron with a definite vision himself.  This is a guy who has already shown hints of auteur cinema and thus comes into the series with his whole set of ideas.  Subsequently his style is prevalent throughout the film and one of the reasons it is so brilliant.

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The Colours

The simplest way to describe the uniqueness and contrast of this film from the first two is its darkness.  In a way it’s a basic case of the ‘dark and gritty reboot’, or the Christopher Nolan effect.  This recently has become quite unfashionable and tiring, but Cuaron did it first.  And of course the colour scheme plays a massive part of this.  The Philosophers Stone’s iconic colour was red and the Chamber of Secrets green, together creating this royal fantasy look.  They are decadent colours, bright and magical, Columbus developing a world of wonder and not peril.  Cuaron quickly lets this go for a much more mature look, a harsher one.  From the opening shots, our palette is greyer and has this morose washed out filter to it.  It almost looks like a David Fincher film, like all the joy of the world has been sucked out of it (hint hint).  This instantly gives the film a more serious tone, and a feeling of dread.  The stakes are higher, and so we have a greater investment in the narrative.  Every costume is picked carefully; suddenly our three heroes look like teenagers, and are acting like them.  Our enigmatic Sirius Black looks like the front man to a 90’s hardcore ban, and our conflicted Professor Lupin looks like a gentle geography teacher.  They all have style and an actual meaning in the film.  These blacks, and dark browns coincide with the films subject matter but take nothing away from the magical elements of the film.

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The Camera

On a technical level, this film is stunning.  Cinematographer Michael Seresin is the master of light here, showing us just enough.  From the beginning the lighting is a key element, and the use of natural lighting creates a real visceral look to the film.  The low key fixes mean the film looks more real and grounded, giving this fictional world an actual sense of place.  For example the leaky cauldron is lit in a way that feels warm but mysterious, a sense of ageing and mysticism from the ‘muggle’ world.  This is just one of the ways Cuaron and Seresin build atmosphere in the film.  Another example would be the use of the Dementors, which are effectively black masses in this film, meaning that are inability to see them leads to a fear of the unknown.  Now onto Cuaron’s shot composition, which is nothing short of alluring.  There’s a creep to it, the camera following the characters voyeuristic-ally.  Like the rest of the Potter films, the landscape is vast, so we get some gorgeous shots, such as the scene where Harry rides buckbeak across the water or during trips to ‘Hogsmeade’.  The film never reaches the heights of the breathtaking scenery of the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, but Cuaron manages to have plenty of depth in his shots.  There’s a weight to them, which comes with the texture of the sets and Cuaron manages to really hold the camera on the important parts of the film.

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The Character

I’m hoping this section explains why Alfonso Cuaron’s direction is massive in making this film a classic, because it is all about his stamp and presence on the film.  It’s about his evident control of the artistic direction of the run time.  To start with, let’s talk about the big moments and how Cuaron portrays them.  Again, it all kicks off from the first few seconds of the film with Harry repeating ‘Lumos Maxima’.  This is a trivial part of the movie, yet is vital for setting the tone of the film.  Cuaron instantly throws us into the Potter universe, but with this cool edge.  This continues throughout the film, with iconography such as ‘the grim’ or the ‘boggart’, which are moments that are charismatically portrayed on screen, whilst also building the magical world and tale.  He handles the pivotal plot points with such grace, such as the quite mesmerising ‘Expecto Patronum’ scream or the throwing of Professor Snape across a room with a spell.  It’s quite difficult to explain the excitement I feel during these scenes, but it’s not because of my love for Harry Potter, it’s because of Cuaron’s sight of the film.  His authority is so wonderfully present and it means the scenes are full of life; telling the story with great vitality.

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Direction is key in any film, and perhaps less so in massive films.  Usually they are created by committee, with a long list of writing credits.  For me Cuaron feels very much captain of the ship here, and even though each Potter film has its own design, none of them feel like this one.  None of them have that bite or exhilaration that Azkaban does, and that’s why I love it the most.  After this Cuaron went onto make Children of Men and Gravity; the former being one of my favourite films of all time.  He is a remarkable director, and is not the only reason The Prisoner of Azkaban is too, which is what I will discuss in part two.