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film review ***1/2: Nothing Cursed About Harry...s Fourth Year

...Goblet of Fire... Casts a New Shadow Over Hogwarts

By Kevin Der

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Based on the novel by J. K. Rowling

Directed by Mike Newell

Written by Steve Kloves

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes

Rated PG-13

Opens Today

In the very first shot, a giant snake slithers from the mouth of a human skull, sinisterly poised at the entrance to a pale tomb. It leaves a spoor of mucus in its wake as it glides over gravestones and fallen crosses, making its way to a dark, neglected house on the hill above. Moments later, whispered words bring forth a flash of green light, and as a body falls lifeless to the ground, Harry Potter is jolted awake from his nightmare. With “Goblet of Fire,” a fatal darkness creeps silently through the halls of Hogwarts, from the pages of perhaps the most popular installment in J. K. Rowling’s ubiquitous wizarding saga.

No longer is Harry able to start his school year in the relatively safe confines of Privet Drive, to cope only with the castigations of his cruel Muggle relatives. Rather, the beginning of his fourth year is punctuated by murder and hints of a dark plot that involves his own abduction at the hands of the most evil of wizards.

In fact, there is hardly a moment in this film when Harry’s life is not in immediate danger. Harry awakens from his first nightmare to join his friends, Ron and Hermione, at a Quidditch match. Soon after, as hundreds on the campgrounds celebrate into the night, dozens of masked wizards called Death Eaters, Voldemort’s followers, terrorize the camp and burn it to the ground. Nearly trampled in the stampede, Harry barely survives the destruction, and his perils have only begun.

Soon after he arrives back at Hogwarts School, Harry is shocked to find himself selected as a Tri-wizard Champion, one of four students competing in a magical tournament involving two other schools. The champions must compete in three challenges over the coming school year, each an increasingly difficult test of their magical prowess and ability to cope with danger. If that weren’t enough, Harry struggles to uncover the spy at Hogwarts who is planning for his death, when all the while the school thinks him a liar. On top of everything else, he is confronted with the most difficult task of all — asking a girl to go to the dance with him.

For the first time, this Potter film doesn’t feel like it’s missing crucial scenes from the book. Like a third-year discovering the sweet shop Honeydukes, director Mike Newell chooses from Rowling’s marvelous source material and creates an enormously satisfying film that is equally delicious in its dangers and thrills. The three Tri-wizard tasks provide relentless action that brings cohesiveness and flow to the picture. In the first task, Harry confronts a vicious dragon on his broomstick in an exhilarating chase over the Hogwarts grounds. He must later survive the treacherous waters of the black lake and navigate a dark labyrinth full of magical predators. It’s better paced and far more believable than anything in the first three films.

Interspersed with these action-driven sequences are humorous moments that keep the tone of the film balanced. Fred and George Weasley are especially marvelous as comic relief. The film’s centerpiece is the Yule Ball, the traditional holiday dance accompanying the Tri-wizard Tournament. Harry, Ron, and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson) play their characters wonderfully well as they cope with all the horrors that accompany such an event. Harry entertains as he nervously asks out his crush, Cho Chang, but unfortunately misses the mark on the best line in the book, “Wangoballwime?” Meanwhile, Ron masquerades his growing feelings towards Hermione as jealousy and bitterness when he discovers she’s going to the ball with someone else. Although it’s fun to see their famous quarrel at the end of the ball, only a grindylow couldn’t feel sorry for Hermione, who has her night ruined and ends up devastated on the stairs in front of the Great Hall, in a beautiful evening gown.

The rest of the talented acting ensemble is as eclectic as a bag of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and Madame Maxime (Frances de la Tour), head of Beauxbatons Academy, share a bonding moment while watching dragons. The rest of the Hogwarts staff, Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) lend their enormous talent and experience with delightful results — in Snape’s case, with sardonic hilarity. Newcomer Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson), who teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts, is creepy and scarred, encouraging his students to tend towards paranoia, yet also displays a paternal side as he guides Harry through the tournament. It’s a joy to watch Gleeson portray this convincing mixed persona.

From the opening scene, the image of a snake protruding from a skull’s mouth is a central icon in this film. Known as the Dark Mark, Death Eaters cast Voldemort’s symbol into the sky to mark the sites of their victims. When the Dark Mark appears early on in the film, the inspired terror is as real for the audience as it is for the characters on screen. All Death Eaters have the Dark Mark tattooed onto their forearms, where the dark etchings of the snake writhe across their skin like living diseased veins. This effect is one of many visuals that subtly express the magic of Harry’s world, instead of detracting from the experience as something clearly computer-generated.

Those who have read the book widely acknowledge that the climactic graveyard scene in “Goblet of Fire” is the most crucial and pivotal moment in canon. The success of the film hinged on the quality of this one scene, and thankfully, it was done spectacularly well. There had to be blood, and torture, and death, and genuine fear, otherwise the whole film would have been completely false. Ralph Fiennes’s Voldemort is bone-chilling. It recalls his mutilated, gasping character from “The English Patient,” except imbued with pure evil. My only complaint is that the editing could have been tighter, because his confrontation with Harry is slightly too short, and there isn’t enough of a desperate struggle just before Harry portkeys. Other than that, Daniel Radcliffe delivers an extra cauldronful of emotion. From Priori Incantatem onward, the tragedy is physically overwhelming.

The closing shots of the trio walking off onto the beautiful Hogwarts grounds are a severe contrast to the growing danger of the world around them. Easily the best film of the series to date, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” captures the essence of the novel without being burdened by the need to fulfill every written detail.