All’s well that ends Newell
BACKSTAGE PASS - Lanz Leviste () - November 18, 2005 - 12:00am
The Harry Potter series is distinctly British literature, and the hiring of Mike Newell, the franchise’s first English director, to helm the fourth book’s screen adaptation is as obvious as it is wise. Of all six of J.K. Rowling’s published novel, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the most nuanced in its sharp shifts in mood and tone, and Newell, with screenwriter Steve Kloves, impressively compresses the 734-page tome into a two-and-a-half-hour instant classic.

Unlike the seminal (albeit inadvertent) bastardizations of American Chris Columbus who directed Harry’s first two juvenile and amateurish romps (God knows what he’ll do with my beloved Rent, its filmic version out at the end of the month), Newell understands the machinery and milieu to surround Britain’s youth. Because Goblet is so much more an exploration into the universally recognized social politics of high school translated for British assimilation, he imbues Columbus’ pedestrianism with the aged, devilish Oxfordian charm of a beautifully shot Hogwarts, where students are naturally rowdy and uncouth and as ruthlessly cliquey as Regina George on a power trip. Working with Kloves, who has penned adaptations for all four Potter films (the next will be by Michael Goldenberg, before Kloves returns for the sixth), Newell is able to replicate the books’ sly British humor. Utterly hilarious was his poking fun at Anna Wintour: the witchy Vogue editor bares unquestionable resemblance (from the bob, the nose, the fur-trimmed coat) to Beauxbatons’ headmistress Madame Maxime, a half-giant with a low voice and penchant for, shall we say, similarly large Hogwarts faculty members. That entrance sequence introducing Beauxbatons and Durmstrang into the Great Hall is pure comic genius. With its reveling in the pettiness, anarchic fun and self-conscious sarcasm of tempered teenage years and enough comic awkwardness to make Ricky Gervais proud, Goblet is an all-too-surprising teen comedy of errors, evoking everything from William Shakespeare to John Hughes to Laguna Beach.

The Yule Ball, an honored tradition of the Triwizard Tournament in which Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has unceremoniously been chosen to participate in, is our first glimpse of a Hogwarts formal: naturally, after a great performance by ‘80s-inspired rock band the Weird Sisters (led by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood and Phil Selway, who wrote three deliciously campy songs for the film), Sixteen Candles-worthy high drama ensues. Suddenly, Ron (Rupert Grint) is Anthony Michael Hall in lacy velvet dress robes.

Adapting a 734-page doorstopper forced Kloves to unfortunately cut out large subplots from the novel: nowhere to be seen is Hermione (Emma Watson) campaigning for house-elven rights, or even the Dursleys, or, dare I say, Mrs. Weasley. But most regrettable is how underused the fabulous Miranda Richardson is as feisty Daily Prophet reporter Rita Skeeter; she gives a performance of undeniable command, working with a potentially meaty role that has been sadly discarded. It is wonderful how Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have all matured as able actors, though the three Triwizard champions competing with Harry – Robert Pattinson as Hufflepuffian Cedric Diggory, Clémence Poésy as French Beuxbatons belle Fleur Delacour, and Stanislav Ianevski as Durmstrang superstar Viktor Krum – could have used more dialogue.

This leaves more time however for Newell to boast some of the most impressive set pieces to be filmed in a while: each of the Tournament’s three challenges are breathtaking and astutely accurate realizations of the page, with digital effects to rival the best Hollywood has yet been able to screen for its audiences. The brief peek into the Quidditch World Cup; the thrilling and genuinely scary first task with a dragon; the sumptuously shot second challenge in the Black Lake; and the ominous maze of a third task are all moments of awe in the actual possibility of artistic and technical artistry in modern-day Hollywood. And Goblet’s prized set piece, the truly chilling graveyard confrontation with Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, having so much fun in a coveted role), will remain one of the most memorable film sequences of 21st century cinema, one of utmost foreboding urgency and historic intertextuality enough for it to attain powerful social significance. All this is elevated by Patrick Doyle’s dark and romantic score, who tinkers with John William’s lighthearted themes for something with much more emotional profundity.

In Goblet, Newell balances the artistic intensity Alfonso Cuarón so imaginatively (and darkly) accomplished in Prisoner of Azkaban last year with a more vivid understanding of the source text. I welcome the MPAA’s PG-13 rating for Goblet, the first in the previously PG franchise, as it shows a growth and maturity implicit in the succession of J.K. Rowling’s novels.

Because we do not see the Muggle world, we are totally submerged into Rowling’s complex mythology, something that wasn’t fully present in the last three films. The film opens up the wizarding world beyond Hogwarts’ already-menacing intimacy, creating its own Middle Earth or Narnia identical to Tolkien’s or Lewis’ dangerous sense of whimsy. Goblet is not only the most magical of the films, but the grandest, most lavish celebration of Rowling’s work, expanding the Potter lore into panoramic narratives as Rowling’s intricate web of plots shows clear signs of emergence. Gone are the sparkly incantations and frothy spells of the childlike aesthetics of magic. Newell both visually and emotionally brings to the table what Rowling begun in Goblet of Fire, evolved gorgeously in Order of the Phoenix, and rendered to wrenchingly greater heights in this summer’s brilliant Half-Blood Prince: he recognizes that Rowling’s magic as an author stems not from clever and simple whodunits or Quidditch matches, but from how she is able to effortlessly knit a tightly woven adult thriller that makes us feel for these characters.

The resultant motion picture is an ambitious, sweeping epic masterpiece of lush neo-Gothicism that meets kinetic technological wizardry. Newell paints with a calculated, terrorizing chaos so immensely absorbing it more than veers into Peter Jackson territory; with his slanted, almost disconcerting artistic eye for distorted visual puzzles and the way he finds blithe coherence in a sinister world of melancholy, he is Picasso, and this is his Guernica. The Potter films just keep getting better and better, this one just above what Cuarón’s magic had brought us last year; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is so far the greatest big-budget cinematic achievement any Hollywood studio has released this year, a fantasy thriller for the ages.

Grade: A
* * *
For comments, e-mail me at

  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?
Login is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with