Film Frankly I don't know where to begin with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Having not entirely been enamoured by the previous two films both of which were far too long to sustain their storyline and didn't have enough humanity to make the viewer care what happened to anyone I went in with a certain forboding. My main, if not only reason for turning up this time was the knowledge that Alfonso Cuarón, who directed the beautiful Great Expectations and thrilling Y Tu Mama Tambian was behind the camera -- I wanted to see if someone with his talent would be submerged within the needs of this kind of franchise. I needn't have worried.

The new Harry Potter film is bloody brilliant.

I know. I can't believe I typed those words either. But its like watching a whole other film series. The closest comparison I can think of is Star Trek : The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan. In that case, out went the massive set pieces, the portentious dialogue and the assumption they needed to be answering all of the big questions and in came a revenge drama mixed with a meditation on the legacy of the past -- and so happens here. From the opening moments when Harry is practicing his magic under the covers so as not to attract the attention of his Uncle which is presented in such a way as to imply that he's doing the wizard version of what other teenagers his age might be doing under the covers, its obvious that we're in the hands of a director who has a clear vision how he wants to tell the story of how Potter is growing up. Unlike the previous films were the characters forever felt like puppets wheeled in to speak their lines on cue, here they gain all kinds of dimensions and so we actually care about what happens to them. It's quite a shock -- from watching an animated storybook illustration to a real film. For more evidence watch for the moment when the kids are trapped on the stairs and the new head boy dashes about trying to take charge and is roundly ignored.

Remember in previous films how the Quiddich game was the main feature for nigh on half an hour, with the build up and the sports film style presentation with a beginning, middle and end in which we essentially waited for Harry to win by catching the snitch? Here the game becomes something the kids do as part of their normal school year -- we don't even find out who won (although its implied). Hogwarts the school has developed into somewhere which feels like a real place rather than a bunch of sets and for the first time we even have a sense of the geography of the place. And perhaps more significantly the costume design has become more varied, with Harry and friends in their civies more often and Haggrid in particular displaying a greater wardrobe.

Is it all down to Cuaron? Well the scriptwriter Steven Kloves is the same as on previous projects (perhaps he was happy to have greater flexibility), and its widely acknowledged that is the best novel of the series. But we welcome as photographer Michael Seresin, whose previous work includes Angela's Ashes, Birdy, Fame, Bugsy Malone and Midnight Express and there are some similarity in the camerawork with those films -- the pallete in particular which includes blue and greens in comparision to the reds and browns of the past. Its more fluid, with greater use of hand held and steadicam. Throughout you feel like you're in the action instead of watching from the outside. Its visceral to an impressive degree.

But the real improvement is in the performances. Its still an British character actor's convention but even they seem to be having fun this time with more dramatic performances. David Thewlis as Lupin and Gary Oldman as Sirius Black prove yet again why they're continually hired to play the grey areas in us all -- both share some very touching scenes with Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, as does Maggie Smith. But they're greatly helped by the fact that this time they have something to bounce off, because the kids have gown up slightly and actually give proper performances. Radcliffe shows the power bubbling under, especially in the Gilliamesque opening scenes. Rupert Grint's Ron Weasly used to be a collection of facial expressions. They're still there, but now he has something behind the eyes even though on this occasion he's mainly the fall guy. The real revelation is Emma Watson who given the chance to relax and probably offers the performance of the film as Hermione, suddenly a kickass, passionate, intelligent role model -- no longer the annoying, grump know-it-all.

So I loved it and can't wait to see it again so that I can pick up on all the details I missed. Two things can happen from here -- it's either going to be the turning point in the franchise as later episodes make the first two as reductive as The Phantom Menace or it'll be the aboration, the good one, the Live and Let Die of the Roger Moore James Bonds. My great fear now as I await The Goblet of Fire is that it'll be back to business as usual, the magic of this one bleeding away. It's being directed by Mike Newell who on the one hand has made things like Enchanted April and Awfully Big Adventure which would suggest something in the old mood. But he also made Four Weddings and Donnie Brascoe so it could go either way ...

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