(Part 2) Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
So here the adventure begins. In a non-descript detached house in leafy southern suburbia, a young bespectacled boy is being abused by his aunt and uncle. They force him to live under the stairs in a tiny cupboard which is padlocked shut and only feed him the bare minimum to stay alive. It’s all a bit too Fritzl for my liking and frankly social services should have been down there to put a stop to it a long time ago. ….but I digress, back to the story at hand. That young bespectacled boy is of course the legendary heroic wizard Harry Potter, handed over to his evil aunt and uncle after his wizard parents were killed by “he-who-must-not-be-named”….or Voldemort as he is repeatedly referred to.
Naturally, as it is the first in a series of films ensconced in a complex and detailed fantasy world, Philosopher’s Stone is required to contain a fair amount of scene-setting and exposition. It is our introduction to the magical world in which these characters live and as such, the plot never really gets going. I assume the first book has a lot more space to elaborate on detail and flesh out the tenuous tale of the titular stone, but from a purely cinematic point of view, it all seems like an excuse to take us on a tour of Hogwarts and introduce us to all the main players.
The main thrust of the movie is thus: there’s a stone hidden somewhere in Hogwarts that can make you immortal and Harry and his pals Ron and Hermione fear that an unknown assailant is trying to obtain it for their own nefarious deeds. The gang therefore decide to save the day and so after playing a spot of chess, Harry confronts the evil mystery man who turns out to be Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Quirrell. However, It emerges that Quirrell is actually being controlled and manipulated by “he-who-must-mot-be-named” (I bet he gave himself that nickname, it was that or “Volley” really). Harry manages to kill Quirrell thanks to his mother’s love (obviously) and Big-V (he’s probably right to go with “he-who-must-not-be-named” thinking about it), is thwarted for now.
It’s a fairly thin plot overall and the infamous stone seems like a flimsy narrative device designed to give HP and Volley their first big face-off. Nevertheless, director Chris Columbus does well to condense the great volume of exposition required into the film’s runtime and by the end even a non book-reader can have a basic grasp of the rules of Quidditch, the history of Harry’s family and the personalities and quirks of the main characters. In hindsight, this and the next film, Chamber of Secrets, are clearly the more child-friendly films of the franchise. Maybe this is thanks to the available source material, but undoubtedly Columbus keeps the tone nice and safe and when compared to some of the later instalments it all seems rather tame. It’s very much a kid’s film with mild peril being the order of the day….that is of course until the film’s climax where Harry melts a teacher’s face off with his bare hands. A Disney fairytale this is not.
One thing that becomes very clear in this first film is that whichever of the four houses has Harry Potter placed in them, has a clear advantage from the off. Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff may as well not even show up to most school events. They have no evil and scheming little bastards like Slytherin, and unlike Gryffindor, don’t have a legendary boy wizard who is prophesized to take on an evil overlord. Imagine being the Ravenclaw kid who’s up against Potter in the House make-a-rabbit-disappear competition (or whatever they have). He’s already known as “the famous” Harry Potter. It’s not really a level playing field.
In Professor Quirrell we also have our first (of many) dodgy Dark Arts teachers. You’d have hoped that after this palaver, the Hogwarts board of governors would take great care over sourcing his replacement. Maybe they could promote from within to ensure a trustworthy replacement. We only ever see about 5 or 6 teachers around the grand head table at dinner time, surely there’s a few more than that knocking around. Maybe there’s a separate staff room where they all go and smoke and bitch about the kids. “That Granger kid is a right smarmy little madam. I’m getting sick of this Gary, I tell you, one more smart-arse crack from her and I’m going back to St. Barnabas Infant School for a quiet life”.
Naturally though, it falls to Alan Rickman to steal the show. Playing Severus Snape, he predictably excels as a vampish and fearsome teacher who glides about the school with apparent disgust and loathing for everything he sees before him. Rickman has proven before in Die Hard and especially Robin Hood Prince of Thieves that nobody can match his for sheer effortless malevolence. Every scene improves when he shows up and shows the kids how it should be done.
On the subject of the kids and their acting, it’s time to address the proverbial elephant in the room. Now, I know they were very young and it’s perhaps unfair to criticise them for work they did aged around 11, but let’s be honest here, it can be pretty cringe worthy in parts. The standard does markedly improve film-on-film, but the three young lead actors do struggle here somewhat. Emma Watson especially delivers her lines like she’s starring in her school play and is being prompted by her mum in the front row. For case in point, I point you towards the first day of broom-riding practice where she bossily yells at HP, “Harry, no way! You heard what Madam Hooch said. Besides, you don’t even know how to fly!” Re-watch it and you’ll see what I mean. It makes Macaulay Culkin looks like Marlon Brando.
A few notes on Dumbledore as well, the late great Richard Harris is perfectly suited to the role of the wise old Wizard and gives it a much needed air of respectability. In fact, ignoring my harsh criticisms of child actors, that’s one thing I will give Columbus credit for. He and his casting director did a great job in recruiting actors for the array of adult roles in the film. Much like Harris, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane and Julie Walters are all perfect in their roles. However, one thing I do have to question however is Dumbledore’s impartiality when it comes to the house cup. At the films end, in an act of points fixing that reeks of FIFA-esque corruption and cronyism, Dumbledore hands out points to his beloved Gryffindor students, Harry, Ron, Hermione and Neville, like they are going out of style. Conveniently, their brave actions in rescuing the Philosopher’s stone earns them exactly one point more than Slytherin house and thus hand them the title. Unbelievable scenes. I am convinced Sepp Blatter and Jack Warner were involved somewhere, in fact if you look very closely I think you can spot a Qatari businessman with a Gryffindor scarf around his neck passing a brown envelope full of cash to Dumbledore under the table.
The Philosopher’s Stone is a solid if unremarkable start to the franchise. As a stand alone movie however it struggles to make much of an impact and is unlikely to be held up as anybody’s favourite outing.