> Volume 6 > Number 23


Alfonso Cuarón

Daniel Radcliffe
Emma Watson
Rupert Grint
David Thewlis
Alan Rickman
Gary Oldman
Robbie Coltrane
Maggie Smith
Michael Gambon
Timothy Spall

Release: 4 Jun. 04

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban


Playing with his wand under the covers at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry, the young wizard in his third outing, sets the stage for what is certainly the first venture into adulthood for the series. While the wand rubbing is purely chaste, the metaphorical meaning and the puberty the boy’s gone through is quite palpable. Taking almost two years to finish, this film presents its characters in the prime of their adolescence, as their hormones run wild. This is most clearly seen with the reappearance of Ron (Grint), now gangly and fighting a spotty voice, and Hermione (Watson), blossoming into a truly beautiful young lady.

That this sexualized film, finally dropping the curse of Chris Columbus (though he’s still on as a producer), is directed by Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón should raise some eyebrows. As the director behind Y Tu Mamá También, a teen comedy with frank sexuality only overshadowed by its emotional frankness, Cuarón seems to have situated himself in an unwanted situation-- he’s dealing with the budding sexuality of kids as most people fear that this can only lead Larry Clark-style exploitation.

But Cuarón is amazingly restrained. Although the meaning of this coming of age is never lost on his work, its chastity remains unbroken. Sure, there’s an overt feeling of romantic tension between the three friends, but no one (at least at this point) is willing to admit it.

What works in this Harry Potter film, by far the best of the series, isn’t so much in its more adult storyline. Instead, it’s the freedom from Columbus’ amateurish dreamland of the first two. Before, every scene was a carnival with boasting production design filling the screen. The movie never had a chance to truly take in the meaning of its imagery, which made it awfully cool and indifferent for a family film. While this is a much darker work, Cuarón frames each scene expertly, so much that the line of vision is clearly produced within a setting meant to strengthen that subject’s import. Even when the film is enjoying the boyish resistance integral to Harry’s prelude scenes with his disgruntled adoptive family, Cuarón lets it take a greater weight than would have been part of Columbus’ handling: the inflation of an aunt veers awfully close to horrific, understanding both the reasoning behind Harry’s magical actions and the possible repercussions of it. He's the novelized equivalent of Spider-Man’s “with great power comes great responsibility” dictum, and his willingness to be irresponsible with little regard for unintended tragedy isn’t allowed to be the youthful indiscretions tackled by Columbus with kid gloves.

Raising another cast of Britain’s finest (including a trio of Mike Leigh favorites, Gary Oldman, Timothy Spall, and an amazing David Thewlis), the film still has that classic façade of a E. M. Forster drama turned into a fantasy tale. This might not really feel so much like Cuarón’s terrain, which is likely why the scenes between the wizards and their professors are less engaging than they were in the first two. But the delights of the film (and I understand is also true for the novels) are found in its wandering eyes through the terrain of Wogwarts. The much more ambulatory storyline of this film allows a greater idea of the land we’ve only just begun to grasp from the previous films. When reintroduced to Hagrid (Coltrane), the school’s empathetic boor of a caretaker, it’s like the first time -- his intentions are clearer, and so is his achievement. Like Hagrid, J.K. Rowlings has likely been doing fine work for some time, personal victories only known to those willing to see (or read) it for themselves. Under the direction of a true film artist, her accomplishment can finally be shared with us all

©2004, David Perry,, 4 June 2004