Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets works perfectly as a work of crime. Or as a crime suspense thriller where its lead investigator, Harry Potter, is a gutsy albeit clueless young hero. It works even better because it takes place in a fantasy world filled with wonderful spells and top-notch visual effects — it is great to look at. But as a character story that belongs to a much bigger whole of 6 others it is possibly too juvenile and cliched to qualify as a great movie. Daniel Radcliffe still has the acting range of a crumpet, Rupert Grint grimaces and cringes more than he speaks, and the trio’s finest actor, Emma Watson, spends half of the movie frozen on a gurney.
But I suppose Watson’s Hermione has to be on the gurney, because she’s the smartest and bravest of the three, and if she was up and about she’d make Harry and Ron look like statues. And that can’t happen, otherwise the movie would be titled Hermione Granger And Friends. Harry is the hero, so knowledgeable or not, he has to be the one who saves the day. Even Ron, who follows Harry on this adventure, becomes nothing but an accessory. Harry has to be the one to crack the case. He has to be the one who enters the eponymous chamber of secrets. He has to be the one who kills the giant snake and vaporises the bad guy. And of course, he has to be the one who comes out with the girl (though this seems rather perfunctory considering he marries her in their adult years). The movie’s biggest flaw is that this hero in Harry Potter is disappointingly tedious. He lacks character, depth, and charisma. Three traits vital to any movie hero. Gilderoy Lockhart, his bumbling self-obsessed teacher, is more interesting by comparison.
The movie is still wonderfully crafted. Chris Columbus returns as director, and he brings much of the same innovative flair that he showcased masterfully on Sorcerer’s Stone. The world of witchcraft and wizardry remains large, ominous, and dazzlingly spectacular. There is an exciting scene in the Dark Forest that involves big spiders and a magical rescue via ghost car. We meet the Whomping Willow, an ancient tree that smashes the ghost car. And there is an ingenious notebook that can converse with you and suck you into its dreamlike world. As with Sorcerer’s Stone, this world is fully realised. It is grand, well designed, beautiful, and dare I say it, magical. It’s a pity then that its innocent joy slowly vanishes as the movies grow darker, scarier, and less fit for children.
Though I must say, Chamber’s story is scary enough. It’s scarier than the man with two faces from the previous instalment. I wonder if it’s because it deals with murder and petrification (the kiddy version of murder). It gives us very visceral images that might seem too heavy for children to digest without feeling some fear, and most of them involve messages on walls written in blood. There is even a shot of a poor cat hanging from a sconce. Traumatic? Possibly. But it is also possible that kids these days are sturdier and less prone to fear. Just observe the number of 10-year olds who skateboard in the middle of your street. Fear and death for them are of little consequence.
The plot is the movie’s strongest point. As I mentioned earlier it deals with crime and the need to discover the truth behind mysterious attacks on Hogwarts students. Rumour has it that a giant serpent lurks within the school walls, and its gaze is enough to kill a grown man. Only if you stare into its eyes through a veil of some sort does its killing power decrease. This is great storytelling and it also provides a convenient buffer between actual deaths and the less morbid petrifications. What Harry discovers in this investigation might seem arbitrary at first, but as the movies expand on the Harry Potter story, it becomes clear that something very important happens in this chamber of secrets. We, as the audience watching this movie for the first time, just don’t know it yet.
I have my issues with Chamber Of Secrets, mainly with its clunky dialogue and sub-par acting. Gilderoy Lockhart is played by Kenneth Branagh, who is one of the first of many veteran British actors to lend their talent and faces to this saga (apart from the standard cast of teachers and groundskeepers), and he plays the man with a graceful elegance that is at once funny and charming. He is given some of the best lines, and had he not met with an unfortunate — or fortunate — accident involving a memory charm, I would’ve liked to see his character progress in the subsequent movies. Now, what do we do about this Harry fellow? Yes, he gradually grows into a more conflicted young man whose troubles amount to more than a hill of beans, but here in the present, in the world of The Chamber Of Secrets, what does he have to offer? Courage? Luck? Loyalty? Maybe. But everyone has these qualities. Give us something more Harry, and not just when you grow older. Give it to us now.
Best Moment | Tom Riddle’s diary. Or Riddle speaking Parseltongue. No, not Harry speaking Parseltongue.
Worst Moment | Still Daniel Radcliffe. Although, and this is a spoiler right here, Tom Marvolo Riddle spelling out “I am Lord Voldemort” is incredibly cheesy.