[Re-posted from The House Next Door.]
As the middle entry in the book series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire occupies a curious position. Much of its story is inconsequential, yet it contains sequences of wide-spanning significance that vaunt the tale into new and darker depths. This posed some challenges for the film adaptation, which needed to serve as a gateway to the later installments' more serious storytelling. Additionally, it also had to deal with how to maintain interest in a set of characters who are so established that they may begin to grow stale. Even though the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, breathed much-needed life into the series, the dramatic tonal and aesthetic changes it brought about required that each successive film provided a distinct enough vision while remaining consistent with the tropes and styles already established. This struggle is evident in the otherwise ambitious and swift version of Goblet of Fire (2005), which signals a change in storytelling rhythm right at the start.
The movie opens with a long, winding shot of a snake slinking in-between tall grass and tombstones and into a dark mansion to meet a shadowy figure assumed to be a still-weakened Voldemort. This is eventually revealed to be a recurring nightmare for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), who we rejoin after he's already escaped from the Dursleys. Harry and company set forth to the Quidditch World Cup, a wizard sporting event set among the English countryside where Muggles are ignorant to a towering stadium. These early passages are dense with activity and are frenetically paced, which is a welcome change after three films that take their time to unfold. Perhaps the reason for such rapidity is that the film condenses nearly 150 pages of Rowling’s long text into so little screen time. Working with a novel of roughly 800 pages, screenwriter Steve Kloves can no longer afford to slightly abbreviate the text. This turns out to be an asset to the later films, which are adapted from longer, more intricate novels and tend to find their own beats and rhythms.
These early scenes set the stage for sport and competition to feature prominently. Upon arrival at Hogwarts, the children learn that the school will host the Tri-Wizard tournament, an Olympics-like competition in which students from international schools of wizardry and witchcraft compete for one trophy. As a vehicle to move the plot forward, the tournament provides a steady point of interest. And the notion of an international tournament would seem to allow director Mike Newell to present a vaster world of magic that is only hinted at in the first three films. But this sense quickly evaporates in an early scene portraying the students’ arrival at Hogwarts in glaring and (almost certainly unintended) comedic fashion. The two sets of visiting students embody profound stereotypes of cultural Otherness. There’s the synchronized female group, each of whose perfectly straight blonde hair and uniform movements bewitch the boys with their gracefulness. Then we have the hyper-masculine school of muscle men donning dark colors and parkas while back-flipping through the Great Hall.
The scene plays like an original SyFy Channel film and reflects Goblet of Fire's general tendency to serve up exaggerated characterizations and performances. Save for Harry and Ron, nearly every character in the film is subject to over-expressive speechifying. All of the new characters and a good deal of established ones act and speak with protracted urgency, as if to suggest that everything they say carries weight. Many of the actors do not appear comfortable in their surroundings. Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore is especially notable for his aggressive behaviors, at one point even shoving Harry against a wall during interrogation. Although Gambon offered a more youthful take on Dumbledore in the previous film, his outright fierceness in Goblet of Fire is off-putting. (In later installments, particularly in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Gambon is finally given free reign to make Dumbledore the contemplative, tender wizard he is portrayed as in the novels.) Moreover, these performances are not assisted by Newell’s cartoonishly hackneyed shot framings, e.g. the introductions of tournament entrant Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ianevski) and minor villain Barty Crouch, Jr. (David Tennant), in separate scenes.
In the wake of Prisoner of Azkaban, such elements are conspicuous. Alfonso Cuarón offered a more intimate and practical take on the wizarding world, using the imagery and surroundings expressively. With Goblet of Fire, Newell places more emphasis on character and performance to the extent that many dramatic scenes lose their potency (many of the adult actors seem as though they are performing in a stage production).
The hokey representations on display here tend not to mesh with the scope of the tournament games, which include underwater bouts with mer-people and navigating an ominous maze. These scenes are, for the most part, exciting thanks to Newell’s deft talent for action sequences and creating tension. The director's eye for action becomes quite clear with a sensational dragon chase among the rooftops of the school. Aided with soaring fanfares from composer Patrick Doyle (taking the reigns from John Williams), these scenes are fluid and appropriately epic.
Goblet of Fire's real achievement is its portrayal of the sexual discomfort of its young characters. This is where Mike Newell’s emphasis on performance (or overperformance) actually works as an asset, particularly as compared to the subtler expressions of intimacy and closeness in the third installment. If Cuarón's film represents the understated beginnings of sexual discovery, then Goblet of Fire takes the next step and turns the discovery into bewilderment and frustration. Newell centers on all the small actions and posturings that accompany a teenager’s inevitable acknowledgement not just of sex, but also of the social practices drawn around sex. Newell elicits every uncomfortable moment he can from his actors: Harry and Ron’s (Rupert Grint) struggle to find dates to the Yule Ball are funny, yet sweet. And Harry’s nervous proposal to his crush is a beautifully observed moment of the shame and pride that often follow after finally mustering the courage to say something to someone with whom you’re smitten.
Goblet of Fire is most effective as a look at the fleeting trivialities and growing uncertainties of young adulthood—an age at which you are old enough to experience a complex range of feelings but do not yet possess the tools necessary to understand them. The young characters are burdened with apparently trivial matters, yet Newell seems to understand that these things only appear trifling in retrospect. It is a nice balance of observation and empathy. We are still at a distance, but are slightly more endeared to the characters for witnessing their unhinged and subsequently guarded behaviors.
The innocence of these encounters serves as a nice backdrop for the climax, when Harry faces down the newly risen Lord Voldemort, played with wily delight by Ralph Fiennes. It is not until later in the series that Fiennes gives you a sense of the character’s calm sadism and profound disdain for non-pure-bloods. Here we are exclusively focused on the fleshy embodiment of the arch-villain who until this point has lurked only in shadow and memory. His pale skin and reptile-like nose complement his skeleton-like body structure, which is forceful and domineering, particularly over the feeble Harry. The dead-serious nature of this scene contrasts heavily with much that has gone before. Everything else wipes away in one single moment.
That Newell doesn’t handle the acting or his over-visual approach with much subtlety can be frustrating. I noted at the start of this essay that Newell’s economical aesthetic in some ways resembles Chris Columbus’ style with the first two films. But this assessment is not entirely warranted, in part because the strengths of this film consistently outmeasure Columbus’ efforts. However, there is a more general point that bears mentioning. While Azkaban unraveled the workings of Columbus and offered a fresh take on the tone and feel of the series, Goblet is more significant as a transitional episode in the narrative. It is understandable, then, why this film attempts to take on disparate elements of the three films that preceded it, before culminating with events that shift the course of the story. Given its place in Rowling’s opus, the material perhaps doesn’t lend itself to the kind of brooding vision that Cuarón provided with the third film. That’s not to say that Newell would not have benefitted from fewer goofy close-ups and an overall stronger aesthetic. However, placed in context, Goblet of Fire widens the scale of this fantasy universe and fashions a solemn emotional resonance that—despite needing to still develop—no longer requires the stylings of the previous films going forward.