Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

D: Chris Columbus
S: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint

The second of J.K. Rowling's novels to be filmed arrives with in some ways less and in some ways more baggage than its predecessor. After the mixed reception of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the makers have attempted to address some of the key concerns of the disenchanted without losing touch with the faithful. The story takes place during Harry's second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where a series of petrifications is traced to an ancient curse which may or may not have links to Harry himself (again portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe). Meanwhile sectarian tensions are on the rise, with the 'pureblood' Malfoy family declaring racial war on the 'mudbloods' of half or fully human families, the fate of whom is linked to the mythical monster said to be kept in the eponymous Chamber of Secrets.

With the necessary introductions to the world and the characters of the first film now dispensed with, director Columbus and his team were faced with the terrible burden of greater freedom. First and foremost, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a darker film than its predecessor. The characters are a little older (as are the actors who play them), the stakes are a little higher (messages written in blood do not portend well for the fate of all of our heroes), and the film delves even more deeply into the dark side of the world of wizardry and into the murky past of Hogwarts itself. The film therefore makes greater demands upon a youthful audience, who must also engage with a more coherent story which takes less time setting things up and more time sorting things out in the manner of a traditional mystery film. Paradoxically, this makes the film even more difficult to concentrate on for young minds, and the restlessness of the small fry was evident during the screening attended by this reviewer. By contrast, the episodic structure of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone made it more like watching a couple of episodes of a TV show strung together, not much different from spending Saturday morning in front of the box.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is still not an adult film though. It is trying hard to win the favours of a slightly older demographic (many preteens and young teenagers were disgusted with the first film's tone, leading to a small-scale backlash against the franchise), but it is still doggedly unimaginative as far as cinematic technique goes. It still relies heavily on dialogue and leaves little enough to the visual imagination, making it long and plodding viewing like the first. Columbus does inject some pace with a number of big action and chase scenes, but unlike comparable moments in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring such set pieces do not advance the plot, they merely punctuate the exposition.

The film also must contend with the lack of surprise. The thrill of discovery is now gone, leaving an expectation of evolution which doesn't quite come. Though the characters are older, there is no great sense of character development as of yet. The belated suggestion of burgeoning romantic awareness between Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermonie (Emma Watson) does not significantly advance the characterisation, especially because it happens in the last minutes of the film. The muddying of the waters of Hagrid's (Robbie Coltrane) past which forms part of the plot actually doesn't work terribly well due to awkward structuring, and the ending in which he is welcomed back to the fold with enthusiasm by the students seems not so much a development as to come completely out of nowhere. The only element of change which does work is the introduction of Malfoy senior (played with sneering glee by Jason Isaacs), suggesting the true dangers of the adult world from which Harry remains insulated, if only just. Kenneth Branagh is a lot of fun as the foppish Gilderoy Lockhart, but his character unfortunately turns out to be nothing more than faint comic relief. The rest of it offers mostly continuity, including repeat performances from the late Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, and Alan Rickman as the senior staff, Julie Walters as Mrs. Weasley, and various other returns in the student roles. Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson are as good as they were last time, and in spite of the bizarre press their aging has been receiving, it is entirely appropriate that voices are breaking, complexions are deepening, and the signs of maturation are at least present on the outside.

As should be obvious from what has been said, it is difficult to judge Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as anything other than part two of an ongoing franchise. As such it is not bad, demonstrating a professional craftsmanship comparable with the first, a tighter plot, and a greater amount of action. Yet it is a film which definitely struggles with a sense of identity, and, like its predecessor, does not quite win out. It remains tied to the books in a way which Columbus has been unable to circumvent, or even satisfactorily address. That said it is certainly watchable, and should fill Christmas cinema seats and Spring DVD shelves comfortably enough to ensure the continuation of the series at least to the next episode. The long-term success of the franchise will depend upon external factors though, not least of which is the popularity of the novels. This in itself says something about the value of the films, which, for now, still have yet to prove themselves cinematically resonant or self-consistent in a way which will endure without the books, the merchandising, and the hype, watchable or no.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.