The Harry Potter franchise is synonymous with global culture of the last 20 years. Since the first books release in 1997, it has took the world by storm. Today, Harry Potter sits alongside Coca Cola and OK as a globally known use of language. The third film The Prisoner of Azkaban was the first one that I saw in the cinema and I couldn’t have been older than 7. Back then it captured by imagination and it still flaws me today. Every single Potter film has its own merit and they are all expertly made, however there is something about this film that makes it very special. The opening two films, directed by Chris Columbus, made over 1.8billion US dollars combined, meaning that Columbus has set up the franchise. He had successfully created the world, and introduced the characters; however it was all a very light affair. They were very much in the vein of children’s fantasy films, with a little edge thanks to the source material. So why after the success of the first films did producers switch to Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron? Why go for a visionary from a different continent? Whatever the answer is (we may never know) it was worth the plunge.
Cuaron began his career in Mexican television, about 7 years before the release of the first Potter book. His first film, Solo Con Tu Pareja was released in 1991 and went on to win many festival awards. It was defined as a ‘sex comedy’ and told the story of a womanizing businessman who is fooled into believing he has contracted aids. After that he went on to direct his first feature produced in the US: The Little Princess, a film that focuses on a young girl sent to a boarding school in New York City during World War Two. The film was critically acclaimed and gained two Oscar nominations (Cinematography and Art direction), however flopped at the box office. This acclaim brought him into the attention of American producers and soon he was directing a new adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic Great Expectations. His version certainly had the sexual thread that lines a lot of his work and also boasted some interesting performances from Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. Overall, it received mixed reviews and didn’t really cement his spot as a top director and so for his next film he returned home to direct Y Tu Mama Tambien. An infamous film, due to its controversial open portrayal of sex and love, it was a massive success both critically and commercially. It is a film that I am always thinking about, with some stunning Emmanuel Lubeski (frequent partner of Cuaron) cinematography and some really intriguing themes. This is where it gets interesting, because his next film was The Prisoner of Azkaban.
David Heyman was undoubtedly taking a risk with Cuaron. So far, he had made four films, two not in the English language and two that were flops. He certainly had shown his skill as a director with Y Tu Mama Tambien, which is without question a gorgeous film. Yet, he didn’t seem quite the fit for a massive budgeted franchise film. Harry Potter was still in its infancy yes, but one thing was very clear, JK Rowling’s vision took paramount. I can only imagine her reaction when they told her they were going down a daring route with the new director. So in comes Cuaron with a definite vision himself. This is a guy who has already shown hints of auteur cinema and thus comes into the series with his whole set of ideas. Subsequently his style is prevalent throughout the film and one of the reasons it is so brilliant.
The simplest way to describe the uniqueness and contrast of this film from the first two is its darkness. In a way it’s a basic case of the ‘dark and gritty reboot’, or the Christopher Nolan effect. This recently has become quite unfashionable and tiring, but Cuaron did it first. And of course the colour scheme plays a massive part of this. The Philosophers Stone’s iconic colour was red and the Chamber of Secrets green, together creating this royal fantasy look. They are decadent colours, bright and magical, Columbus developing a world of wonder and not peril. Cuaron quickly lets this go for a much more mature look, a harsher one. From the opening shots, our palette is greyer and has this morose washed out filter to it. It almost looks like a David Fincher film, like all the joy of the world has been sucked out of it (hint hint). This instantly gives the film a more serious tone, and a feeling of dread. The stakes are higher, and so we have a greater investment in the narrative. Every costume is picked carefully; suddenly our three heroes look like teenagers, and are acting like them. Our enigmatic Sirius Black looks like the front man to a 90’s hardcore ban, and our conflicted Professor Lupin looks like a gentle geography teacher. They all have style and an actual meaning in the film. These blacks, and dark browns coincide with the films subject matter but take nothing away from the magical elements of the film.
On a technical level, this film is stunning. Cinematographer Michael Seresin is the master of light here, showing us just enough. From the beginning the lighting is a key element, and the use of natural lighting creates a real visceral look to the film. The low key fixes mean the film looks more real and grounded, giving this fictional world an actual sense of place. For example the leaky cauldron is lit in a way that feels warm but mysterious, a sense of ageing and mysticism from the ‘muggle’ world. This is just one of the ways Cuaron and Seresin build atmosphere in the film. Another example would be the use of the Dementors, which are effectively black masses in this film, meaning that are inability to see them leads to a fear of the unknown. Now onto Cuaron’s shot composition, which is nothing short of alluring. There’s a creep to it, the camera following the characters voyeuristic-ally. Like the rest of the Potter films, the landscape is vast, so we get some gorgeous shots, such as the scene where Harry rides buckbeak across the water or during trips to ‘Hogsmeade’. The film never reaches the heights of the breathtaking scenery of the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, but Cuaron manages to have plenty of depth in his shots. There’s a weight to them, which comes with the texture of the sets and Cuaron manages to really hold the camera on the important parts of the film.
I’m hoping this section explains why Alfonso Cuaron’s direction is massive in making this film a classic, because it is all about his stamp and presence on the film. It’s about his evident control of the artistic direction of the run time. To start with, let’s talk about the big moments and how Cuaron portrays them. Again, it all kicks off from the first few seconds of the film with Harry repeating ‘Lumos Maxima’. This is a trivial part of the movie, yet is vital for setting the tone of the film. Cuaron instantly throws us into the Potter universe, but with this cool edge. This continues throughout the film, with iconography such as ‘the grim’ or the ‘boggart’, which are moments that are charismatically portrayed on screen, whilst also building the magical world and tale. He handles the pivotal plot points with such grace, such as the quite mesmerising ‘Expecto Patronum’ scream or the throwing of Professor Snape across a room with a spell. It’s quite difficult to explain the excitement I feel during these scenes, but it’s not because of my love for Harry Potter, it’s because of Cuaron’s sight of the film. His authority is so wonderfully present and it means the scenes are full of life; telling the story with great vitality.
Direction is key in any film, and perhaps less so in massive films. Usually they are created by committee, with a long list of writing credits. For me Cuaron feels very much captain of the ship here, and even though each Potter film has its own design, none of them feel like this one. None of them have that bite or exhilaration that Azkaban does, and that’s why I love it the most. After this Cuaron went onto make Children of Men and Gravity; the former being one of my favourite films of all time. He is a remarkable director, and is not the only reason The Prisoner of Azkaban is too, which is what I will discuss in part two.