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Prior to Harry’s second year at Hogwarts, he is visited by a house-elf called Dobby, who tells him he must not go back to school. Ignoring his warning, Harry returns and before long members of the school are found petrified, Harry is hearing voices and a message, scrawled on the wall in blood, reveals that the Chamber of Secrets has been opened...
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Poor Harry is having a terrible time. All he wants is to go back to Hogwarts, the school which feels more like a home to him than living with his Aunt and Uncle, who despise him. He hasn’t heard from his friends all summer and his owl is upset with him because he can’t let her out of her cage. Then he gets a surprise visit from a strange house-elf called Dobby, who talks about himself in the third person and constantly beats himself up for saying things he thinks he shouldn’t have said. Dobby warns Harry not to return to Hogwarts because he is in grave danger. When Harry refuses to comply, Dobby wreaks havoc downstairs by levitating a cake and dropping it onto a guest. This gets Harry into trouble with his Aunt and Uncle, who tell him he can’t go back to school (you’d think they’d be glad to get rid of him). So, Harry is stuck in his bedroom (well, his cousin’s second bedroom, who has kindly given it up so Harry no longer has to sleep in the cupboard under the stairs) with bars on the windows and nothing to look forward to.
This film, the second in the series, has the same main fault as the first in that it is very faithful to its source material. However, it’s a better film than the first because improvements have been made in all areas and it is both darker and more dramatic. It is possible to see it slowly gaining a life of its own and moving away from the novels, something the third film improves upon immensely.
One criticism I would like to make, one that isn’t actually a weakness of the films, but of the novels, is deus ex machina. Too often Harry is saved from a dangerous situation by something extremely improbable happening. In the first book and film, Harry is faced with death at the hands of Quirrell but then we discover that his touch can apparently fatally wound evil people (an ambiguous power he never uses again). In this second film and its source material, Harry is completely out of his depth against a huge basilisk. He has nothing to fear though, as he is saved by Fawkes the phoenix, who seemingly comes to the aid of those who show loyalty to Dumbledore (this is never fully explained). He pecks the basilisk’s eyes out and gives Harry the sorting hat from which he draws Godric Gryffindor’s sword (that’s one clever bird!). Later, when Harry gets himself poisoned by one of the basilisk’s fangs, Fawkes returns to heal him and carry everyone to safety. The phoenix truly is the real hero of this story.
The introduction of new characters is always something to look forward to in the Harry Potter films. It is a case of seeing brilliant British actors showing off their talent and having a great time. This time around we have Kenneth Branagh as the comical and egotistical new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart (you’ll notice this position in the school has an extremely high turnover). He is clearly enjoying himself and is a definite scene-stealer. Another new recruit is Jason Isaacs as Draco Malfoy’s father Lucius. An excellent actor, I always prefer watching him play the bad guy, and here he is obviously relishing his role.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is definitely aimed more at fans of the book than those new to the series, which makes financial sense because there is a huge built-in audience to target. Ultimately though, this means the film suffers in terms of creativity. It is a dedicated adaptation that will thrill fans young and old alike, although the very young may get scared of the huge spiders and the basilisk. Visually, it is a treat, and the crew who created this magical world seem to know no bounds. At 161 minutes the film is much too long, but those who love Harry Potter probably aren’t going to notice. Bring on the next one!