Screening Log #60.3: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Written by Steve Kloves based on the novel by J.K. Rowling
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint




By this, the third, Harry Potter film, Steve Kloves’ scripts have fallen into a characteristic rhythm: begin with Harry in the “real” world, move to Hogwarts with some dark premonition of harm hanging over Harry’s head, spend a while embroiled in a mystery, Harry discovers a revelation that reframes what he thought was happening while informing him about his mother and father in some way, solve mystery, complete a heroic deed, pass out, wake up among friends, the end. The Prisoner of Azkaban does not deviate from this standard script narratively; Kloves develops his narrative arc in much the same manner as the previous two films, again slowly building on Harry’s growing maturity and its twinned amount of agency he has over his life. Here, for instance, Harry simply leaves his relatives house of his own accord, rather than requiring the aided escape of the second film, or Hagrid’s intervention in the first.

This film follows Harry’s return for his third year at Hogwarts, this time plagued by the escape of one Sirius Black, Gary Oldman, from Azkaban, the wizard prison. Black was a former friend, and seeming accomplice, in Voldemort’s murder of Harry’s parent and speculation abounds that Black has escaped to finish the task left incomplete by Harry’s surviving his encounter with the Nameless One. The spectre of danger looming over Harry – and, by proxy, Hogwarts – is manifested here as the grim-looking Dementors, the guards of Azkaban who siphon all happiness away from those who may cross them in their search for Black. The bulk of the middle section of the film consists of Harry and crew slowly piecing together who Black is, exactly, and his relationship to Harry’s parents and role in their demises. Harry cultivates a stronger relationship with the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Professor Lupin, David Thewlis, despite the seemingly Spinal Tap drummer nature of this position at the school. Lupin was a friend of both Harry’s parents and Sirius Black, and carries his own dark secret – inferred by his last name and a cursory knowledge of Latin.

While the film may be narratively constructed in a manner identical to the previous films, the direction of Alfonso Cuarón breathes a new, deeper, dramatic life into the film. Cuarón’s eye for interesting framing of shots allows even more expositional scenes to visually bloom, his camera moving through scenes more fluidly than Columbus’ had in the first two films. Cuarón appropriately applies a much darker palette to the film; the nocturnal and lunar atmosphere of the film, in conjunction with its ever-maturing content, calls for a darker tone and Cuarón’s direction affords the action a rich and painterly sensitivity. Cuarón uses a stronger contrast between the light and dark elements of the film, deploying a wide range of grey colouration as well, affording the dark night scenes generous cloud cover and water to reflect light off of.

This dramatic manipulation of light and shadow is also germane to a further thematic element of the film. The Prisoner of Azkaban introduces a mild line of inquiry into the nature of justice, exploring the relationship of truth to justice and the relationship of guilt to punishment. Gestured to in the first scene, wherein Harry inflates a rude relation to the point that she floats away, the question of guilt and punishment carries through the body of the film; Hagrid faces persecution by Draco’s father due to an accident with a hippogrif precipitated by Draco himself and the quest for knowledge regarding Sirius Black results in revelations that upend conventional thinking about his responsibility in the death of the Potters. Due to these threads, Cuarón’s employment of starkly contrasted black and whites – mediated by a swath of grey – speaks directly to the film’s auxiliary thematic preoccupations.

Interestingly, after the action of the film has concluded, the plot employs a sort of time travel to fine tune the preceding events to ensure that things play out more fairly for two aggrieved parties in the film. By manipulating time in this manner, The Prison of Azkaban revisits and modifies the previous film’s engagement with cycles and time; where, in The Chamber of Secrets, the characters were subjugated to the cyclical nature of time, here events are more overtly manipulated and influenced by the film’s characters. This film also restores balance within the three leads. Hermione’s absence due to petrification is equalled here by Ron’s incapacitation due to an animal bite, allowing each character to accompany Harry on the final leg of his adventures an equal amount over the course of the three stories.

The third entry in the Harry Potter series further cements the pattern of development that the plot and characters seem to be following. The narrative seems to build slowly toward the inevitable confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, taking pains to ensure that Harry’s maturation process is informed by larger, and universal, themes that mirror his development as a student. The development of Harry as a wizard directly corresponds to his development as an individual; the films, as with The Prison of Azkaban, seem to function more thoroughly when a similarly symbiotic relationship is forged between the narrative and its visuals.


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