Half-smoked Marlboro and Diamond White in hand, Harry turns to Ron and belches, “That Cho Chang is really hot. But she’s well out of my league and, like, I’ve got all that Voldemort stuff to sort out.” “Bloody hell, mate. Girls? Eurgh!” slurs Ron. “Oh, honestly,” shrieks Hermione. “Men!”
Not really. But our spell-casting sprogs are shooting up so sharpish that Dumbledore’s “dark and difficult times lie ahead” portent applies just as much to puberty as it does to the constant threat of the Avada Kedavra curse.
The fourth instalment of JK Rowling’s absurdly successful boy-wizard books is the one everyone’s been tingly for, with the promise of fantastic set-pieces, intertwining subplots and adolescent blossoming. To the latter’s end, Rupert Grint’s Ron has – gasp – started swearing, Harry’s getting all flushed around Cho (Katie Leung) while Emma Watson’s Hermione emotes like the not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman 15-year-old she is. Never more comfortable than with the “well-mannered frivolity” of the terrific Yule Ball, Mike Newell’s Four Weddings touch gives Hogwarts’ teens an everyday edge – girls grow up faster, boys are crap, teen parties end in tears. “They’re scary when they get older!” exclaims Ron after a hormonal Hermione hollering.
But, of course, this is Hogwarts, where there be spells, weirdos (newcomer ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody, riotously played by Brendan Gleeson) and the parent-consent-form-dodging Triwizard Tournament. Killer dragons and carnivorous mazes form the crux of the 636-page novel and, with much to cram, Newell makes a breakneck start, continuing at a pace that isn’t too fussed about holding newcomers’ hands. But this rushing pushes the thrillingly realised Quidditch World Cup into a five-minute slot without any actual Quidditch and trims back faves Snape, Malfoy and Sirius Black to cameos.
On top of the virgin-baffling torrent of new characters and replaced characters and major developments whizzing by as bite-sized chunks, Newell is also clearly constrained by the book’s flip treatment of key moments. On the page, they seem sharp and shocking, but up on-screen, jarring and underdeveloped.
In other words it’s Harry’s game – and Radcliffe’s stage – to prove he can convey the burden of having the entire magical world perched on his slender shoulders. And up against Ralph Fiennes’ terrifying Voldemort (slits for nostrils, rotting body, Nosferatu stoop) Radcliffe’s range of corny startles still feels lacking.
Still, like Star Wars, the acting quibbles are absorbed into Newell’s bigger, crowd-pleasing picture of spell and spectacle. But consider this: next in the series is the 776-page, filler-packed snorefest The Order Of The Phoenix – entirely empty of Goblet’s set-piece sexiness, meaning Harry’s box-office dazzle may yet dim. Dark and difficult times indeed for the franchise, the magical world and tortured teens with little hairs sprouting in odd places.
Newell vividly conjures up a world fraught with real danger. Potter nuts will lap it up, but those just flirting may feel like gatecrashers at the ball.