Surprise! Chris Columbus is back to deliver another dose of Hogwarts-style adventure. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a good film, so allow me to get that out of the way right at the outset. It is completely watchable, and as a continuation of the series it serves its purpose reasonably well. What makes me somewhat sad about this film is the potential that was squandered. With Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling delivers a horror-mystery ripe for film. Unfortunately, Columbus and writer Steve Kloves drop the ball in a big way. Again, it’s watchable, but Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets could have been so much more.
Once again, Kloves and Columbus very stupidly become slave to the book. They are simply too afraid to upset fans by messing around with the events and structure of the film. Worse still, so many scenes are kept that the film has no flow and becomes terribly episodic. This handicaps the film by lessening the impact of the main plot in which students are being attacked and the school is becoming increasingly dangerous. With this core tonal element of the film having less impact, Columbus decides to let the visuals carry the tone. The result is a film that tries so hard to look dark, but ends up looking silly. The camera is constantly moving obnoxiously, often going in for idiotic looking dutch angled close-ups or other sorts of skewed framing.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a film that tries be dark and edgy, but also can’t seem to get over the idea that it is made for young kids. Here’s a little tip: young kids can handle it! Particularly when you’ve already got a scary giant snake in there. The young actors here don’t help matters. More of the film seems to rest on them (probably because this movie is much longer than the first) and they haven’t improved enough to counteract that. Emma Watson in particular develops acting crutches that are incredibly annoying. Luckily we still have Richard Harris, Maggie Thompson, Robbie Coltrane and Alan Rickman. We also get great acting out of Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy, and Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart. The film may not hit the right tonal notes, but at least its got great supporting actors to distract from that fact a little.
Can I just say again how much I hate dutch angles? I hate them! Sure, a few here and there thrown in to vary up the composition can be fine, and when they accompany constantly-flowing camera movements they even add a little bit of kinetic flair. But moving in for a close-up with a dutch angle is a technique that should be banned from all filmmaking. It is distracting and never looks as off-kilter or frightening as a director intends. In Chamber of Secrets these weird camera angles actually contribute to a climax that is really quite bad. Harry is running around trying to stop the basalisk while the memory of Tom Riddle stands there shouting random things. I guess Columbus thinks that throwing in some weird angles will make it seem more exciting, but it actually removes any little tension that might have originally been there. We are left with a climax that feels entirely ho-hum. It needed to happen and it got the point across, but that’s about it.
In fact, that might be the biggest sin of this film. Overall it seems like not much was done very competently. It’s all just there because it was there in the book and because another film needed to be made, but it never takes on a life of its own, and it certainly doesn’t pack the tonal, thematic or emotional punch it inherits from the novel. I can’t help wondering if maybe the rushed schedule (getting this movie out exactly one year after the first film) had an effect on the final product. It really does feel like a less thought out endeavour; as though David Heyman, the producer, said, “Hey guys, we’ve got the set all built and a first draft of the script ready, so let’s go out and shoot something.” For a series with this much money invested and so many more films to make, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is something of a shame. A watchable shame to be sure, but a shame nonetheless.