Why ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ is So Remarkable – Part 2/2: Performance & Narrative

First part (direction): https://robsfocuspull.blog/2017/07/10/why-the-prisoner-of-azkaban-is-so-remarkable-part-12-direction/

In the first part I discussed Alfonso Cuaron’s vision and his stamp on the film.  I think ultimately he is the reason the film is so brilliant; however there are other cogs in the wheel.  These other cogs, in a broad sense, are performance and narrative – two things that are arguably the most important in deeming a film a success.  A poor narrative leads a film to be boring and poor performances lead a film to be unwatchable.  Azkaban has both a strong narrative and strong performances, so mix that in with some arty Cuaron-ness and it adds up to a remarkable movie.

J.K Rowling is extremely precious about her work, and fairly so.  Instead of being discarded when the rights were bought for her books, she was brought into the fold.  It’s clear she backed away through most of the films creation but certainly didn’t let them get away with anything that wasn’t a part of her imagination.  The third book in her series, and for me one of the weakest, was published in 1999 two years before the first film even came out.  It’s a strange thing because I view all the potter books very differently.  After re-reading them, I see them more and more as children’s books.  The dialogue is a little scratchy and some of the story telling is painfully basic.  Yet they are still clearly well written and I would say The Order of the Phoenix and The Deathly Hallows are extraordinary pieces of work.  Azkaban however is just a little too infantile at times for me, and obviously is going to be different re-reading it as a 19 year old and being plagued by a love for the movie.  The book almost has the exact same beats as the film, as it’s the last of the shorter novels.  Therefore Rowling’s mind is definitely on top form, despite some dull writing, as the plot is complex and meaningful.

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Narrative

It’s hard to congratulate a particular person on good narrative pacing, as a massive budget film usually has about thirty people behind it.  The writer credited is Steve Kloves, who adapted all the Potters apart from Order.  He is clearly a talented guy, because he manages to slim away any shaky dialogue and keep a quick movement by movement plot in all of the films.  Azkaban is a particular feat because there is so much plot going on.  Right from the start it is very different from the first two films and getting to Hogwarts is a Potter cliché and the first two films set that in stone.  This then leads to the typical Potter narrative, which goes as follows: arrive at Hogwarts in a funky way, listen to some kind of warning that’s going on in the school, go to classes and do wizardry stuff, discover something about the warning, develop a plan, more school wizardry stuff (Quidditch perhaps), then a final climatic battle or problem to overcome (wizards chess and the snake etc).  As the films go on this gets cloudier, especially in Goblet because the Tri-Wizard cup brings in a whole new narrative structure.  Consequently when Azkaban sub verses this, it’s very refreshing.  First off, because getting to Hogwarts is put into jeopardy straight away, because Harry has to get there himself.  It’s then a beautifully choreographed and funny travel set piece with the night bus.  Then even before the obligatory train ride, we have moments of calm outside of Hogwarts, where Harry gets that warning that’s going on this year (Sirius Black).  And even then, on the train, it is grounded to a halt by the baddies and we are introduced to a beloved character (the Dementors & Lupin).  I hope you get what I’m trying to say at this point, which is that Azkaban dismisses and plays with that classical Potter structure.  It toys with the source material, holding on drama and expressing it in a new way.

Moving on towards the ending as it of course has two of them.  The time turner, the most plot device written plot device in history, but so wonderfully done.  I still remember being shocked that there was another 20 minutes left in the film because they have to go back in time.  My small brain couldn’t quite fathom that they were going to answer some of the questions that had been built up.  It is mesmerising, it really is, that we get to relive a plot that has already gripped us.  From a different angle we see the story unfold, and so much more depth is added.  The characters (Harry & Hermione) begin to understand what actually is going on, and just how special Harry is in this world.  Cuaron has already masterfully balanced key scenes, and now the plot pulls it along to an exciting resolution.  The narrative in this film is exciting, and somewhat original, meaning that on a story basis it leaves most other blockbuster films behind.

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Performance

In this narrative, you have diverse characters played by diverse actors.  It’s a constant in Potter films, great Rowling creations played by a host of British actors.  This film in particular boasts an outrageously good cast with Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, Emma Thompson and Michael Gamdon coming into the series.  Oldman especially sits at the top of the helm in a challenging role.  He is conflicted, going quickly from bad to good and is very much a mentor to Daniel Radcliffe.  Radcliffe himself has stated how after working with Oldman he decided to pursue acting properly.  Sirius Black is the drive of the film and the emotional draw, so a legend had to be brought in and he did a perfect job of it.  David Thewlis comes in to play probably his now most infamous role, another conflicted character in Professor Lupin – a man shrouded in guilt but full of care and hope.  He plays him in a messy, rugged look; he’s imperfect but pragmatic.  Thewlis makes him likeable due to his soft nature yet a lean to the anti-hero because of his aggression and obvious darker side.  These two characters together have unbelievable chemistry and give a great sense of the friendship before with Harry’s parents.  It’s these top level actors that create such clarity in the story and allow the younger cast to develop their skills.

Like I said, Oldman was deeply influential on Radcliffe and I believe he still is today.  Harry has to be far more mature in this film and Radcliffe handles it well, cautiously not overacting in dramatic moments.  For example he is quiet when Oldman is present, allowing him to lead the scenes.  And when he has to be centre stage, he controls it well, such as when he reveals to Ron & Hermione that Sirius was one of his parent’s friends.  In my mind this is when Radcliffe becomes the proper leading man of the series and appears as a competent actor.  He is given pretty tough material and not once does he seem out of his depth.  His co stars improve on themselves as well, with Rupert Grint nailing his comedic timing and Emma Watson becoming much fiercer.  She is no longer the annoying know-it-all but a force to be reckoned with, and spars well with Radcliffe in the more intense scenes.  What is remarkable about the three’s performances is how real and convincing it is, combining well with the existing world building Cuaron has put into place.  The director got very close to the actors on this film and suggested they really get to know their characters inside out; it shows.

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In conclusion, the acting in the film ties well with the solid narrative.  It is an intriguing plot that requires some tricky portrayals, but all is dealt with well.  With this set of actors comes a fantastic chemistry that is carried throughout the rest of the series.  It is at this point that the franchise takes a turn south to become the breathtaking story that it is.  Daniel Radcliffe has since played some incredible roles and Cuaron has since made some incredible movies.  Their connection in this film makes it remarkable alone.  I think in these two short completely un-researched essays I have touched the surface on the magic of this film, maybe one day I’ll write a book about it, giving me chance to scour all corners of its genius.

 

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