Film

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

The cruelest of Malfoy's bigotries is directed against lovely, diligent Hermoine.


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Kenneth Branagh, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Tom Felton, Jason Isaacs
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Warner Bros.
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-11-15

It's likely you've heard already that the new Harry Potter movie is "darker" than the first. That, and star Daniel Radcliffe's voice has dropped. Supposedly, both have to do with maturation: as the book series and its readers age (not to mention author J.K. Rowling and assembled filmmakers), they're more able to comprehend and learn from difficult images or distressing themes. As you grow up, stuff happens.

In fact, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is "darker" than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, slightly. In particular, this has to do with its sideways engaging of race prejudice (more on this below). For the most part, however, the movies are very similar, right down to the tediously episodic structure and the assortment of mostly unrelated special-effected set pieces: the hugely elegant mess-hall meals, the cameo appearance by Nearly Headless Nick (John Cleese), the quidditch match (here more like a force-be-with-you chase scene through narrow confines than a bunch of broomsticks flying around in open air), the classrooms where some magic trick goes cutely wrong, the traipse into the shadowy woods, the scary secret at Hogwarts that must be found out. And so on.

The new film, again adapted by Steve Kloves, begins much as the old one did: Harry (Radcliffe) is feeling blue at the home of his nasty aunt and uncle (Fiona Shaw and Richard Griffiths). He endures the requisite bit of oppressive acting out: uncle blustering, aunt sniggering, cousin sniffing. The film's metaphorical darkness makes its first appearance at Harry's home, in the form of an unnervingly well digitized "house elf" named Dobby (voiced by Toby Jones). He comes to warn Harry not to return to Hogwarts, that some terrible fate will befall him there. And don't you know, this makes Harry want more than ever to go back (not to mention that he absolutely hates his hateful aunt and uncle).

Unfortunately, whenever the elf believes he's made a mistake of any kind, he launches into a little paroxysm of self-abuse, slamming his head against furniture, hitting himself with an appliance (and at these moments he veers nearly into Jar Jar Binks territory -- the "other" as object of unkind humor). This routine is hilarious for young viewers, as slapstickishly violent self-abuse tends to be, perhaps especially when it's enacted by funny little creatures with pointy ears, but it also gets old pretty quickly. Harry is mostly concerned that his uncle will discover the elf and punish Harry; he seems unbothered by the elf's self-punishment per se.

Neither does he seem terribly troubled by the fact that Dobby is "owned" by an evil wizard family, under a spell to do his master's bidding until he's set free (he's snuck out and risked his life to warn young Harry). Though Harry is at this moment an earnest kid with his own concerns -- mainly, escape from the frightful home where he lives -- it's not hard to guess that he will be instrumental in Dobby's freeing, or that he will become a better boy for it. How fortunate for him that Dobby is so clownish than no one need sympathize with him, much less identify with him. The focus is on the young white wizard learning the lesson, and to that end, Dobby appears and disappears instantaneously, so as not to worry Harry or anyone else for too long about his status as slave.

Just when it's clear that his own life sucks immeasurably, Harry is rescued by his fellow wizard-student Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). He comes by in his dad's flying Ford Anglia, accompanied by his redheaded siblings, all equally eager to rescue Harry and head off to Hogwarts for the new semester. The situation there is much as it was when they left: the Gryffindor and Slytherin houses remain rivals, Hagrid the Giant (Robbie Coltrane) sleeps off in his own cottage with his dog, and the same basic line-up of professors -- Snape (Alan Rickman), McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Sprout (Miriam Margolyes), and Dumbledore (Richard Harris) -- presides over class and cafeteria periods.

A new prof appears, the self-loving celebrity author and teacher of Defense Against the Dark Arts, Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh, in a boisterous performance). Introduced at a book signing where the girls swoon and the boys make faces, Gilderoy enlists Harry's help in signing his stacks of promotional photos to send to fans: "Celebrity is as celebrity does!" he instructs. (Ironically, perhaps, Gilderoy's scenes are the least self-congratulatory in the movie: Branagh looks like he's actually having fun.) Harry might take a pointer on the costs of fame and legend, as his peers and insecure adults are increasingly inclined to inflict on him their jealousy and fear. But Gilderoy's foppery is more an object lesson in what not to do, since Harry "naturally" carries himself with poise, humility, and charm.

As before, the most important lessons in Chamber of Secrets are taught outside of classrooms, in particular, the titular chamber of secrets. And while the film spends far too much time on the tricks -- CGI blue Cornish pixies, giant spiders that aren't so nifty as those in 8 Legged Freaks, screaming mandrake roots, and a humungo and not very well realized snake that makes poor Harry look like he's suddenly been transported into Jason and the Argonauts -- it does provide several choice moments for stalwart Hermoine Granger (Emma Watson), as she learns about prejudice.

The main purveyor is the ferrety Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), who brings a particularly Aryan look to his baleful glare and assorted discriminations. It's obvious that Malfoy is egged on by his equally small-minded and pale-maned father (Jason Isaacs) and that their combined spitefulness is a function of long-term, learned insecurity. And so, Draco despises Ron for being poor and dirty (his enthusiastically wizardy family lives simply), and is afraid of Harry's essential Harry-ness (being legendary, sweet, heroic, and a half-breed: half-human and half-wizard). This film underlines Harry's difference by revealing that he is a Parselmouth (he speaks "snake"), which makes him seem even more powerful and, of course, "dark" than in the first film (as even Harry doesn't know how he has come to have this language or what he's saying when he uses it).

The cruelest of Malfoy's bigotries is directed against lovely, diligent Hermoine, for she is the child of muggles (humans). Malfoy actually makes poor Hermoine cry when he starts calling her names, and Harry and Ron come to realize an important lesson, articulated by another target of prejudice, Hermoine's usual champion, Hagrid: that a wizard who is not pure-blood is called "mud-blood." That the film (and so far, the series) is unable to represent race and race differences directly is hardly unusual. Like the old Star Trek episodes, the Potter films include occasional characters of color (black and Asian Hogwarts students) to indicate a certain "diversity," and unlike in the old Star Trek series, they are not summarily killed off, but rather, relegated to cheering on the white heroes (one even has a comprehensible line to speak during the quidditch business.)

Amid all the other excitement that goes on in Chamber of Secrets, Hermoine's personal encounter with Draco actually takes up very little screen time or energy, though her new friendship with gloomy ghost-girl, Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson) suggests that Hermoine herself is as free of prejudice as the great Harry, and rather remarkably patient and discerning to boot. (And Hermoine is very sadly removed from the action partway through the film, for reasons that the book's readers know well enough.) Still, the film does address her concerns, via further displacement, in the plot concerning the chamber of secrets, which involves an apparently longstanding conflict over whether the student body will be "mixed" or "pure" of blood.

That Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets takes on this struggle as one that is "historical" as well as contemporary, is surely commendable. That it piles up a lot of episodic enchantments and digital wonders is disappointing, but not unexpected, given that it pretty much follows the first film's formula. And Chris Columbus does havethat down: as he told Katie Couric on Today (13 November 2002), "The only reason to do a sequel to a film like is to make it better." That's disingenuous, of course -- the reason to make a sequel to a "film like this" (which made some $967 million total gross) is to make lots more money. Still, if it can also explore a little "darkness," metaphorical, ideological, or political, along the way, more power to it. Now, if it can only pick up the pace.



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.

Music

The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.

Music

Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.

Music

Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.

Music

Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.

Film

The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.

Music

Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.

Music

Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.

Music

Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Music

Songwriter Shelly Peiken Revisits "Bitch" for '2.0' Album (premiere)

A monster hit for Meredith Brooks in the late 1990s, "Bitch" gets a new lease on life from its co-creator, Shelly Peiken. "It's a bit moodier than the original but it touts the same universal message," she says.

Music

Leila Sunier Delivers Stunning Preface to New EP via "Sober/Without" (premiere)

With influences ranging from Angel Olsen to Joni Mitchell and Perfume Genius, Leila Sunier demonstrates her compositional prowess on the new single, "Sober/Without".

Music

Speed the Plough Members Team with Mayssa Jallad for "Rush Hour" (premiere)

Caught in a pandemic, Speed the Plough's Baumgartners turned to a faraway musical friend for a collaboration on "Rush Hour" that speaks to the strife and circumstance of our time.

Music

Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."

Music

The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.

Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.