Released to coincide with the publication of the seventh and last installment in J.K. Rowling's series of magical (in both senses) coming-of-age novels, this fifth film should please fans who rate the films based on their fidelity to the canonical texts. But for the uninitiated, it's a dry and slightly dreary introduction to the world of Hogwarts and Azkaban, where enchantment and mystery — good and bad — lie beneath a placid surface of English railway platforms, call boxes and pedestrian underpasses. It feels like a placeholder, not because little happens but because so much plot must be served in order to set up subsequent events that there's no room for the gentle human moments that anchor Rowling's heroic fantasy epic to the everyday world.
It opens in a miserable little excuse for a playground in the cookie-cutter suburb where orphaned wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) grimly spends school holidays with his loathsome relatives, the Dursleys. Trapped in a rank underpass by a sudden, highly suspicious storm, Harry resorts to magic to rescue his unspeakable cousin Dudley (Harry Melling) from a soul-sucking Dementor and is promptly expelled for using magic in front of a civilian. In short order Harry is hauled before a Ministry of Magic tribunal, whose intent to railroad him is thwarted only by the fortuitous intervention of Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), head of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and Harry's much-loved mentor and substitute father figure. But though Harry is cleared, his already sullied reputation has been further besmirched: Head Minister Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) has taken the position that Harry is deluded at best, lying at worst, when he insists that the dreaded Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned from hellish exile, reiterating it regularly in the ministry's house organ, "The Daily Prophet." And many of Harry's classmates have begun to wonder aloud what really happened when he and popular student Cedric Diggory entered a mystical maze from which only Harry emerged alive. Harry has allies, of course, including his oldest friends, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and his godfather, the fugitive Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). But he also has an implacable enemy in ministry lackey Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), whose cheery pink wardrobe and saccharine smile hide the soul of a lace-curtain fascist. Installed at Hogwarts as the new Defense Against Dark Arts instructor, she guts the program, terrorizes the faculty and sets about molding the more malleable students into a civilian Stasi, spying on their classmates in return for official favor, all for the express purpose of further discrediting the increasingly isolated and nightmare-haunted Harry.
There's more — much, much more — crammed into the 138-minute running time; it's the shortest film in the series, adapted from the longest book. Both screenwriter Michael Goldenberg and U.K. television director David Yates are new to the series and do an admirable job ratcheting up the darkness. They're supported by cinematographer Slawomir Idziak's icy color palette, which truly does look as though all the happiness has been sucked out of the world. As always, the performances are top-notch, from the series veterans — many reduced by the sheer volume of plot to virtual cameos — to ethereal newcomer Evanna Lynch, who plays witchy little Luna Lovegood. But for a tale suffused with spells and portents, the magic is oddly elusive. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh