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Best of 2002: Movies, Books, Music.
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Saturday, November 16, 2002

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
I love the Harry Potter books (when the last one came out, I spent a fabulous weekend in Victoria, B.C., doing nothing but reading, eating in that city’s fabulous but entirely unpretentious restaurants, and drinking cups of tea), and I love the movies, but thus far those twin passions haven’t meshed together very well.

I went to the opening night of the first movie full of excitement and anticipation, but I ended up falling asleep. It wasn’t entirely the film’s fault—those carefree Friday nights of my youth have been replaced by weak, weary evenings when I strain to stay awake past 11 p.m., and we didn’t get out of the Cinerama that night until almost 2 a.m.—but it was so literal and so crammed with narrative that there was no room left for the imagination.

Last night, the opening day of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, I was considerably less hyped-up, and I enjoyed the film much more for it. (The key to happiness is managing expectations. Unfortunately, it’s also the key to mediocrity.) This time around, Chris Columbus didn’t have to spend quite so much time on introductory business, so he could pay more attention to the plotting, making the story arcs more successful. Still, I agree with Slate’s movie critic, David Edelstein, that the marathon movie was still too short: “This isn't a two-hour film inflated by pretension (or contractual fidelity) to two hours and 40 minutes; it's a four-hour film reduced by a businesslike hack to two-thirds of its rightful length.”

With the movies, you’re struck more forcefully with the notion that Harry Potter is basically children’s entertainment. Reading a 600-page book, you can block the fact that you spent precious time and brain cells pondering booger-flavored jellybeans; when five minutes of a 160-minute movie is dedicated to vomiting slugs, you’re all too aware that 3.125 percent of your evening in the cinema was spent watching a redheaded boy spit up slimy garden creatures.

Even more than in the first movie, the stellar cast was criminally underused. The cast list reads like a roll call of the great genre actors of the last quarter-century—Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, John Cleese, Alan Rickman, Julie Walters, Gemma Jones, Kenneth Branagh, etc.—yet none of them are on-screen for more than 15 minutes, most for less than five. Fiona Shaw is said to be the greatest stage actress of her generation (I’ve never had the good fortune to see her), and she gets about two minutes of action, most of it wordless. As Edelstein put it: “[W]hat kind of director could confine the greatest living English-language comedienne, Maggie Smith, to a few blasé reaction shots? What kind of director could confine the most resourceful of all living British farceurs, John Cleese, to a couple of monosyllabic drift-throughs as a semi-decapitated ghost? A director with more money than talent."

Two other actors stood out for me: Jason Isaacs, as Lucius Malfoy, who despite beautiful blue eyes and a sweet smile has become America’s favorite British movie villain thanks to his turn in The Patriot (I could hear the parents of the kids sitting behind me last night muttering, “What was he in?”). I remember him from that late-‘80s TV classic Capital City, which was one of my many televisual addictions of the era. (Isaacs is about my age, a couple of years younger, in fact, so at first I thought he was miscast as Draco Malfoy’s dad. Then I remembered that several of my contemporaries have kids in the early years of secondary school. What a shocking realization: I’m old enough to be Harry Potter’s mother. And there’s actually a family resemblance!) Shirley Henderson was also great as cottager Moaning Myrtle, despite being chronically misdirected. She also first came to my attention via television—she played Robert Carlyle’s star-crossed true love, Isobel, in Hamish Macbeth—and she was absolutely fabulous as Tony Wilson’s first wife, Lindsay, in the excellent 24 Hour Party People. She’s got a great talent for conveying hidden depths: The characters she plays often seem unaffected by happening around them, but at the same time you get the sense that in fact they care very much.