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Non-Review Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

“Everything’s going to change now, isn’t it?”

– Hermoine, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Truth be told, before I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was easily my favourite instalment of the series. It’s the perfect balance between the lighter start of the series and the much darker end of it, straddling the two distinct tones with ease, and managing to walk the line between it’s under-plotted predecessors and over-plotted successors. It’s still not quite perfect, but it genuinely feels like things are changing and world is lot more vast than the earlier films had led us to believe.

The series is finally firing on all cylinders...

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the first book in Rowling’s series that can legitimately be described as a “tome.” It’s massive, and intimidating. Given how much difficulty the earlier films had fitting books half its size in films that ran to two-and-a-half hours, it should have been clear that some… judicious editing of the source material would be required. As such, the creative team don’t so much take a scalpel to the book as much as they take a chainsaw.

And, you know what? It works. The adaptation process here was clearly brutal, and I imagine quite a few fans were less than pleased at certain omissions or re-workings, but it produces the most efficient and economical entry in the series. There’s a stronger sense of purpose and story to the episode than there is to any of the ones following. While there are nice character-building moments (Harry saving two victims rather than just his friend) and a minimum of teenage angst-y nonsense that clogs up the next two movies. There, I said it.

Harry's mostly arm-less this time around...

There are still some nice little “growing up” moments, and this is perhaps the point at which the Ron/Hermoine triangle line was most interesting. Repeating the plot ad nausiem with different partners just blocked up the more interesting developments in the movies that followed, and really should have been left here. There is a rather silly Harry/Ron feud over the eponymous goblet, but it’s a minor blip on the radar compared to some of the stupid plotting that would follow our plucky leads into the movies to come.

That sort of ties into why I think that the three leads are really at their best here. I’ll talk about them a bit more in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but this is really the last time the actors are asked to play kids. In the next instalment, as a result of this movie’s climax, Harry is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (screaming in his sleep while recalling the events seen here) and training an army. While still dealing with teenage nonsense. However, here, Harry, Ron and Hermoine are free to be kids having a slightly-more-perilous-than-usual school life.

Booked for the next four movies...

And this is the one where it all changes. In particular, it’s the death of one of Harry’s friends that signifies a watershed moment. It’s really the off-hand manner in which it is done. “Kill the spare,” is so casual a command it’s practically an after-thought. From a series that was unwilling to kill off a CGI mythological creature in the previous film (going to ridiculous lengths to save it through awkward plot mechanics), it’s one hell of a shock and a very powerful moment. But we’ll come back to it.

I quite like what director Mike Newell does with his films. Admittedly, there’s minimal time to establish or explain each and every scene, so the director borrows a page from his predecessor’s book, so to speak. Alfonso Cuarón evoked a sense of timelessness through his filming techniques – favouring old-style wipes to transition between scenes, establishing shots of seasonal change to show the passage of time, and tinting certain sequences with a gold hue. Newell’s film doesn’t quite do it so skilfully, but the movie’s production design cleverly calls to mind certain historical moments – a necessary and clever piece of narrative shorthand.

The last of the "light" Harry Potter films...

The Yule Ball, for instance, paints Harry and his classmates as the “bright young things” of thirties British high society, wearing their tuxedos and dancing in step as dark forces brew in the background, our heroes completely oblivious to the fact that they are living in a delicate peace between two wars.

Similarly, Newell draws on a post-Second World War feeling, as the movie hints at how former collaborators must be viewed. It’s subtly hinted at, but one wonders how a certain character (one of the rival headmasters) can live with themselves after what they’ve done, and how the wizarding world must accept them. One tribunal sequence calls to mind Nuremberg, with a convicted war criminal promising to name names in return for amnesty.

Couching tiger indeed...

“Scores of witches and wizards have claimed that they only did You-Know-Who’s bidding under the influence of the Imperius Curse,” Mad-Eye Moody, the latest in an ever-growing line of Defences Against the Dark Arts teacher, explains. However, is it really that much different from “I was just following orders”? It’s not the most subtle of moments, but it works. It also hints at the scale of the darkness looming on the horizon.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. This is really the last time that bright and colourful scenes would be the rule rather than the exception. And I still think that this movie houses some of the series’ best action sequences. In particular, the first of the three challenges, with Harry stealing a dragon’s egg, makes for a nice piece of popcorn cinema.

A Moody ole fella...

In fairness, I think the movie has had the benefit of ageing especially well. In particular, casting Robert Pattison as Harry’s rival seems especially clever after Pattison launched his own big screen fantasy franchise. It adds a nice layer of almost meta-commentary to the scenes where the fans and supporters of one side attack those who dare to follow the other. It’s nice that the book does enough with the character of Cedric that he doesn’t seem a complete jock jerk.

As well as that, there are also nice (but small) roles for two up-and-coming actors. David Tennant appears as a villainous follower of Voldemort, playing a sort demented insanity in sharp contrast to the joyous enthusiasm he brought to the title role in Doctor Who. The movie also features a small role for Clémence Poésy, who is better known for her work on In Bruges(curiously enough, with Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes). Between these two and Pattison, I don’t think any Potter movie has launched as many recognisable faces.

The Twilight of Pattison's career is still ahead of him...

Of course, it’s Brendan Gleeson’s Mad Eye who steals the show. Gleeson is brilliantly… well, Irish in the role. “Go on,” he urges a student like he’s bargaining on Moore Street, “give us a curse.” He’s not so much a character as a collection of quirks (unlike, say, Lupus in the prior film), but he gives Alan Rickman a run for his money in the scenery-chewing department. It’s also worth noting that this is the year when Michael Gambon really makes Dumbledore his own, if only because the character has a lot more to do this time around.

What Newell really deserves credit for, and it’s something that I think David Yates struggled with, is transitioning between the dark and the light elements. If you consider the series as seven stories (albeit told in eight movies), the Goblet of Fire stands in the middle. It features probably the darkest ending in the series (even considering Half-Blood Prince), but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Through the challenges – from the bright dragon fight to the murky depths to the sinister gothic maze – Newell moves the movie fluidly from one end of the spectrum to another, so the finale doesn’t seem too jarring.

Three of a kind...

What I also like about it is the sense of scale. After all, the Quidditch World Cup sequence at the start is the first real sense of a magical world existing outside Great Britain. I really could have done without the giant magical leprechaun as an Irish mascot (the team may as well have shown up drunk, with red hair), but that entire opening sequence does very well at foreshadowing the darkness that is coming. In fact, it’s one of the better sequences in the series, and a lot of scenes in the later films would struggle to create the same sense of menace.

The Goblet of Fire might not do everything perfectly – it’s production design lacks the beauty and nuance of its predecessor, for example – but it does pretty much everything well. It isn’t as painfully saccharine as the movies that came before, nor as relentlessly grim as those that followed. It is economical with its story points, but everybody gets their moments – indeed, it perhaps does the teen angst better than those that would follow. If we were to describe the movie in fairytale terms, this would be the one that’s just right.

Harry's in grave danger...

I do have to wonder, though, about the kind of wizarding society that not only condones – but actively supports – this sort of competition. I wonder how high the mortality rates are. More than that, the kidnapping of four people for the second challenge (four people who did nothing more than know the four champions) also seems a little bit suspect. Maybe they weren’t in serious danger, but then why did Harry feel the need to save a second person, if they weren’t at risk? All I’m saying is that perhaps serious questions need to be asked about Hogwarts’ health and safety practices. Maybe Umbridge was right to favour an academic approach to magic. It was probably a lot less risky.

The movie also suffers a bit from the condensed plot in terms of the movie’s central mystery. As I noted before, I love the careful and selective approach adopted, but the movie’s central mystery can be fairly easily deduced through observation of the law of conservation of detail. That said, Professor Moody’s secret is no easier to work out than the mystery of Professor Lupin in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the thread is certainly more carefully considered than the “central” plot of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Harry needs to learn to keep his head down...

I think the film also captures a lot of Rowling’s themes in their purest forms, in a way that they would be so perfectly distilled again until the finalé. There’s the idea of the importance of love as “old magic” and “the ultimate protection”, a theme that will come into play again and again and again through the series. There’s the notion of how horribly screwed up families can be, with the simple father-son relationship of the Crouch family offering dysfunction in its simplest form. Rowling returns again and again to the idea of families and how they shape us or define us, and the Crouch family is a rather wonderful little microcosm of all those ideas. Of course, we’ll see it in the Blacks and the Malfoys, but I don’t think anything captures the essence of the themes quite so well. At the same time, the story doesn’t layer it on too heavy, inside suggesting it and letting it linger, much like The Prisoner of Azkaban did.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is perhaps the best in the series. It’s not just a superb Harry Potter film, it’s a very well-made piece of cinema on its own terms as well.

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