Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Director : Chris Columbus
Screenplay : Steve Kloves (based on the book by J.K. Rowling)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore), Maggie Smith (Prof. Minerva McGonagall), Kenneth Branagh (Gilderoy Lockhart), Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid), Alan Rickman (Prof. Severus Snape), Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle), Toby Jones (Dobby), Christian Coulson (Tom Riddle), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy)
It’s his second year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and wunderkind wizard-in-training Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has his hands full. Before he even arrives, he is begged by a nervous house elf named Dobby (a fully digital creation voiced by Toby Jones) that he must not return to Hogwarts because he will be in grave danger. Like that’s anything new.
And so begins Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second installment in the series of films based on J.K. Rowling’s insanely popular book series. Harry, of course, does return to Hogwarts (which seems to have gotten even bigger and more elaborate since we last saw it) and a host of familiar faces, including his two best friends, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and his arch-nemesis, the perpetually scowling Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton, who’s still too cute for the role).
If there’s one significant difference between Chamber of Secrets and its predecessor, last year’s phenomenally successful Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it’s that this installment has no exposition. Sorcerer’s Stone served as a fine introduction to Harry Potter and his world, and much of the film (similar to Rowling’s book) worked to ease us into it by introducing us to characters and situations and dropping hints of backstory that were sure to have ramifications further down the road. Screenwriter Steven Kloves, who adapted both films, drops us immediately into the story in Chamber of Secrets, assuming that we are already up to speed. It’s all for the best, for even at a length of 2 hours and 40 minutes, the film still had to cut out sections of the book, although those parts that remained have been faithfully rendered on-screen. The idea is that, if you don’t know what’s going on by now, you probably shouldn’t be watching this movie.
Chamber of Secrets is also significantly darker and more violent than its predecessor, a trend Rowling has nurtured with each successive novel (and has studio executives worried that the next few may start verging into PG-13 territory, which might cut out some of the series’ core audience). This time around, someone (or something) is lurking in the halls of Hogwarts petrifying anyone who crosses its path. This thing may have been unleashed from the mysterious Chamber of Secrets, buried deep somewhere in Hogwarts, its existence denied by the faculty.
In what is becoming one of the cornerstones of Rowling’s plotting, this basic scenario is infinitely complicated with subplots and back stories that sometimes threaten to overwhelm the basic necessities of action and forward momentum. Spun throughout are connected subplots involving a mysterious 50-year-old diary by a former Hogwarts student named Tom Riddle, the aforementioned Dobby the house elf, a miserable ghost named Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson), and a suggestion that the enormous and gentle groundskeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) may have a dark secret from his past.
Kloves does a fine job of juggling all this material, trimming off the excess and making the rest of it flow as smoothly as possible. In his second stint helming a Harry Potter film, director Chris Columbus keeps the story moving steadily forward, allowing a few diversions here and there, but little to distract from the narrative momentum (as long as it is, the film never feels terribly long). Columbus was always a safe-bet choice to direct the films—a consummate professional with a solid mainstream track record and a skill for working with children. His shortcomings in ingenuity and imagination don’t seem terribly detrimental since the material he’s working with is so infused with magic and wit (although the fact that Alfonso Cuaron will be helming the third installment threatens to expose Columbus’ generally pedestrian filmmaking style).
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets doesn’t just bring out the old, but also introduces a few fresh faces, most notably the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, the self-infatuated Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh). Branagh’s performance as Lockhart is the film’s greatest asset, as he brings a wonderfully hammy approach to portraying the ridiculously narcissistic new professor; it’s just this side of over-the-top, and he injects the film with great humor. Similar in intent, but different in tone, is Jason Issacs’ (The Patriot) portrayal of Draco’s sinister father, Lucius Malfoy (what a great name!). Isaacs’ sneer and perpetual look of disgust at everything he sees is the other side of the coin from Branagh’s toothy grin and the puffed-up twinkle in his eye.
All in all, Chamber of Secrets is a well-tuned machine, churning out the requisite excitement and thrills and spectacle while not losing sight of some of the more intricate character details and subtle social commentary infused into Rowling’s novels. Unlike Sorcerer’s Stone, this film manages to better maintain some of the class issues that inform Rowling’s stories, particularly in the Malfoys’ mockery of the Weasleys’ lower social status and their wizard-racist beliefs that Hogwarts should not allow “mudbloods”—those with both wizards and muggles in their heritage. While certainly downplayed, these are important aspects of the story, and they serve well as introductions for the young audience to some of the nastier elements of the real world.
Of course, there’s still plenty of spectacle to behold, including a thrilling Quidditch match that plays like a roller coaster ride and a scene in a dark forest involving hundreds of giant spiders that is by far the creepiest and scariest scene I’ve seen this year. That one movie can contain all of this and not feel like it’s splitting at the seams is an accomplishment in and of itself, and even if the Harry Potter films can never quite escape the commercial juggernaut of merchandising and cross-promotion in which they’re trapped, they still make for a diverting good time.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick