There’s a moment in the first Harry Potter novel where Harry, through the foggy surface of a magical mirror, first comes into contact with the faces of his long-dead parents. It’s an unexpected moment, and touching, full of sincerity and loss, and constitutes the placement of a great burden upon Harry’s shoulders – the giving of an image to all that has been taken from him…and the first representation of all else that might. It was, more than Quidditch, more than Hogwarts, the moment I wanted most to see in the initial film. It was the test of whether or not the length of Harry’s journey, through seven presumptive novels and films, would have any particular substance or weight.

In Colombus’ version, that moment is left flat and uninspired, falling heavily upon distant direction and mediocre acting, and the quick “let’s-get-on-with-it” style of editing that has marred the films thusfar. In the mad attempt to fit nearly every scene, word and phrase of the book into the film, there seemed to be little time to stop for drama, for subtle moments and careful direction. The first two chapters in the cinematic series became movies about magic with no magic to them at all.

Which is why I was relieved to hear that Colombus had stepped away for the third film, giving up the directorial reigns to visualist Alfonso Cuaron. And while the film is still scripted by screenwriter Steven Kloves, desperately trying to cram every ounce of novel into every minute of movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban proves itself to be a beautiful, touching and, yes, magical film. With an illusory combination of both style and depth, Azkaban becomes not only a fine entry in the Harry Potter saga, but a wonderfully accomplished film in its own right.

Obvious from the beginning is a sense of the film’s maturity, not only in its subtle, sophisticated style of presentation, but in its movement from a world of Hollywood gloss into a place of magic realism. The world of magicians and muggles is so beautifully created in this deepening chapter, all at once so impossibly magical and yet so magically possible. Each and every frame is filled with some evidence of the daily lives of wizards, always some illusion or spell being performed in the background and shadow, and where a close-up of one illusion may suffice, here we are treated to wide shot after wide shot of charm and enchantment. The film’s visual presentation is a force of believability, drawing us ever-deeper into Harry’s duel-tone world, until we are so far embedded that we fear the closing credits.

And the acting here is equally well-developed, with each of the main actors turning in remarkably improved performances over past outings. Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry is a truly complex character – and for the first time we see that here – with his misadventures constantly churning the layers of sadness and anger up through the joy of an otherwise fortunate life. We revel in each happy moment and regret when they are, as they must be, inevitably spoiled by some event or revelation.

And in a rather graceful transition, the recasting of Dumbledore due to the tragic death of Richard Harris has been nicely handled. There’s just enough of actor Michael Gambon to introduce us to his more subtle version of the character, though not enough to demand a comparison.

Gary Oldman, as Sirius Black, for all his fifteen minutes on screen, makes a mark that leaves us wishing desperately for the next installment.

And last but not least, David Thewlis as Professor Lupin adds a tender element of sympathy in a truly effecting role. There’s a scene between Lupin and Harry that takes place on a bridge. It’s a small, intimate moment, full of the drama that the previous films lacked, and proves to be one of the film’s finest.

In fact, many of the highlight scenes in Azkaban aren’t the grand set pieces that we might have expected. Rather, they’re the smaller, more meaningful moments. A shot of Hedwig flying across the water as fall passes so deftly into winter. Or a smiling Harry upon Buckbeak’s feathered back.

But don’t be fooled. Cuaron knows how to handle the film’s suspense. There’s no arguing that Azkaban is the darkest, and in many ways the most frightening, portion of the overall story, and the resultant film is certainly not for the young child who may have started with the series two chapters back. This is a film that has grown with its characters, and consequently with its fans, to present a dark tale of werewolves and dim-cloaked Dementors.

Two sequences stand out in particular. The first being the Dementor assault on the train to Hogwarts. And the second being Harry’s horrifying downpour Quidditch match. Each sequence is uniquely suspenseful and staged with a film lover’s flare for special effects and shadowy presentation. Tense and beautifully framed, these two scenes, in any other context, would be perfectly at home in any modern day horror film.

Overall, Azkaban succeeds in being both suspenseful and cheerful, dark yet wonderfully bright – a delightful film – the best book in the series and, for the moment, the best film in the lot. And with such fine talent in place for the fourth installment, there is every hope that the quality of the films will continue to match, if not outdo, the quality of the novels.

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