Screening Log #60.2: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Written by Steve Kloves based on the book by J.K. Rowling
Directed by Chris Columbus
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint




The second Harry Potter film begins with Harry set to return to Hogwarts for his second year of wizard schooling. Beginning, as did the first film, in the dreary suburban English town of Harry’s aunt and uncle, he is once again set upon by the boorish bourgeois behaviours of his relatives as they stifle his creativity in a quest for upward social mobility. The film follows his return to Hogwarts, despite the ominous foreboding of a plot to harm Harry this year at Hogwarts delivered by a small – and not un-Jar Jar Binksian – house elf, Dobby. Ron and the clan Weasely spring Harry from a barred window, allowing him to attend Hogwarts with them after a run-in with Malfoy’s father at a book-signing in Diagon Alley – the secret area of London where all your wizarding needs are met.

Ron and Harry encounter some difficulty in boarding the train to Hogwarts, so they must enlist the aid of Ron’s father’s flying car to get them to the school this year. Here, the story’s lingering parallels to adolescent development are again made clear; certainly there is no rite of passage more associated with freedom and agency than the onset of learning to drive a car. The pair arrive at the school under their own power, if not entirely in complete control, demonstrating an increased measure of agency for them that will be explored a little more deeply by this film. At the school things resume a familiar rhythm: Slytherin are jerks, new students arrive, Quidditch is played, a new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor arrives, etc.

This film, however, is interested in opening up a racial schism within the student body of Hogwarts, introducing the concept of “mud bloods” who are born from parents of non-wizard origins – a group of which Hermione is herself a part. While the films, thus far, have cultivated an atmosphere of openness and inclusivity, for the most part, this delineation between pure wizards and “mud bloods” works in tandem with the Malfoy’s derision of the Weasely’s hand-me-down apparel and books to inject some measure of race and class tension to an otherwise sunny social milieu. The decision to abstract mud bloodism from any particular race, however, allows the film to both sidestep any direct engagement with racism while allowing its treatment to be broad enough to resonate with actual situations.

The issue of legacy is deepened, further, by the mystery of the eponymous Chamber of Secrets. Shortly after arriving at the school for a new year, events transpire wherein people – and one animal – are rendered petrified by a dark presence in the halls that warns in blood written on the walls. Harry’s investigation of this chamber reveals a cyclical pattern in the school’s history, the chamber having been created by one of its founding members and opened by another young student some fifty years prior. That the afflicted persons become catatonic gestures towards the stasis implied by the cyclical nature of time; the cessation of movement in the world empirically manifests the abstract sense that deviation from a pre-existing cycle is impossible for Harry as similarities between himself and previous attendants of the school are revealed.

It becomes evident that it is Harry’s self-determining nature that separates him from this precedent of behaviour, however, as he is able to utilize the tools of the past – literally – to combat the force that he ends up facing in the Chamber of Secrets. The basilisk which has been petrifying everyone is conquered with the aid of the sword of Gryffindor, pulled from a magic hat like a deadly and ancient rabbit. Reading the film as an allegory for adolescence, the image of Harry defeating a large phallic snake creature certainly takes on an added note of absurd appropriateness as a young man struggles to tame the blooming of his hormone-fueled new libido.

The film closes with a return to normalcy that very much echoes the close of the first film as a more benign form of cyclical repetition sets in. The camera pans away from the students and teachers of Hogwarts, out the window and into the night sky, reversing the shot that began the film which zoomed in on Harry and his relatives’ grey and fractally uniform suburb. Like the film’s own overtly subtle ruminations on, and variations of cycles, this closing gesture by inversion seems entirely appropriate.


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