Chris Columbus returned for a second outing at the helm of the good ship Potter and the end product was a definite improvement on his first. With many of the characters and key themes established in his first outing, there was more freedom to develop an actual plot in this one. The vast majority of the story is set in and around Hogwarts, so it was important for Columbus to really expand on what we see of the school and create a genuine sense of its grand scale. This is well achieved and along with Production Designer Stuart Craig and Cinematographer Roger Pratt, credit is due for setting the bar high for the rest of the franchise in terms of producing a visual feast.
The general gist of the plot is thus; Harry and the gang return for their second year at Hogwarts no doubt full of stories from the summer holidays and presumably with nice new Walkers Crisps pencil cases tucked inside their brand new Jansport bags. However, shortly after settling in things take a characteristic turn for the sinister when poor old Harry starts to hear voices. Soon Harry, Ron and Hermione find an ominous message daubed in blood on a wall “The Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Enemies of the heir beware” hanging alongside which is the petrified cat of Groundskeeper Willie, or whatever his name is.
Legend has it that the Chamber contains a dangerous creature that can only be summoned by the Heir of Slytherin. Oh aye, Quelle surprise. It’s always those scheming bastards ruining it for everyone else. Naturally, Harry suspects Malfoy as being the heir because, let’s face it, he’s clearly a bit of a wrong ‘un. But after brewing up a batch of Polyjuice Potion and masquerading as Malfoy’s droogies, they learn this isn’t the case. Later, under the tutelage of the brilliantly conceited Gilderoy Lockheart (Kenneth Branagh) who is now Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Harry has a wand duel with Malfoy and next thing you know there’s only a giant bloody snake thrown into the mix (always the way). After Harry manages to talk to the snake, thus proving he’s a Parselmouth just like the original Slytherin, the judgemental eyes of his peers begin to fall on Harry.
Over the course of the school year, several other kids and one ghost turn up petrified at the hands of an unseen evil and eventually, even our Hermione gets got. Soon Harry comes across a diary of a former student named Tom Riddle, which I’m pretty sure is slang for a wee in Potter World, “Where you off to?”… “Just going for a Tommy Riddle”. The diary is, naturally, a magical one and shows Harry a glimpse of events at Hogwarts 50 years earlier. By the way, when I said I’d give the ‘the general gist’ of the plot I did honestly mean it, this is as snappy a plot summary as I can provide for a labyrinthine Potter story. Anyway, back to it. After learning from a note found in Hermione’s petrified hand that the creature in the chamber is a Basilisk (i.e. a big snake) and then overhearing that Ron’s little sister Ginny has been taken there by the evil doer in question, Ron and Harry set out to find the chamber and save her. Harry manages to figure out the chamber’s location thanks to his penchant for spending time lurking in the girls’ toilets and along with the bumbling Lockhart they enter. Harry finds Ginny in a bad state and then who should pop up but Tommy Riddle.
It turns out that Riddle was preserved in his diary as a living memory and more to the point he is in fact Voldermort in his teenage years and the actual heir of Slytherin. Tom is attempting to use Ginny’s soul to regain his power and thus return to flesh and blood form. I do see now why big Vol changed his name. Nobody would take a malevolent overlord seriously if their surname was Riddle. Riddle sends the basilisk to kill Harry but after taking a minor fang in the arm (‘tis but a scratch), Harry uses the sword of Godric Gryffindor to kill the creature. He then turns his attention to Riddle and stabs the diary with the basilisk fang, thus killing the memory of Riddle and scuppering Voldermort’s plan to resurrect himself.
PHEW. That was far harder than I thought. I have missed out several minor plot details here, but you get the general picture.
The film is much more complex than its predecessor, but is still fairly timid in the grand scale of the Potter tale. The later films all seem to be part of the over-arching story with each one revealing a little bit more of the puzzle, whereas this one feels much more of a stand alone film. Obviously, events that transpire here are relevant later on, but you could easily skip over Chamber of Secrets and still have a good idea of what was going on in the series, which isn’t the case for the latter films.
Chamber does almost shoot itself in the foot early on with the introduction of the irritating Dobby the house elf. Once again, Potter is being victimized and locked away by his odious aunt and uncle, though in their defence they have now upgraded him from a cupboard to the box room, so it’s an improvement at least. Dobby arrives in Harry’s room at an unfortunate time and begins yapping away and self-harming like a penitent Opus Dei priest. Eventually, later in the film, Dobby returns and is toned down and far less annoying, but in this opening scenes he does tread that fine line and nearly stumbles into Jar-Jar territory.
Dobby aside though, there are a host of interesting new characters introduced in Chamber. Kenneth Branagh’s Gilroy Lockhart is a great addition to proceedings, as he enters with great bluster and pomposity, telling all who will listen of his daring adventures. Of course, it’s clear from day one that he is making it all up and we even get a glimpse of the other teachers rolling their eyes and exchanging knowing glances when he tells tales of his escapades. This suggests that they too knew of his cowardice all along……yet the school was still willing to employ this charlatan as a teacher. Once again, the selection policy for the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher has to be called into question here.
Another great addition to the cast is the sneeringly wicked father of Draco Malfoy, Lucius, played by Jason Issacs. Entering into the series with a bang, Malfoy Senior shows an instant distain for Potter and the Weasley clan and it’s clear to see where his son gets his anti-mudblood elitist ideals from. Lucius represents the nasty undercurrent of the wizarding world that puts great stock in purity of blood and has no time for dirty muggles. He also injects a spot of class warfare into the story as his haughty demeanour and harsh mistreatment of his domestic slave (our old pal Jar-Jar Dobbie) gives him the air of an arrogant aristocrat. You wouldn’t be surprised if he were to remove his driving gloves and slap someone across the face simply out of pure malice.
The film may not reach the dark territories of later films, but there’s definitely an increased element of danger involved. The whispering voices, the threats written in blood, petrified children and a giant evil spider to boot. The gargantuan arachnid Aragog is reportedly a mate of Hagrid, an old friend who the big man thinks nothing of packing Harry and Ron off to see. “Honestly lads, he’s great is old Arry, wouldn’t hurt a fly……well, he would hurt a fly….but you know what I mean.” Clearly Hagrid isn’t the best judge of character, as Aragog soon turns on the boys and the scene where Harry and Ron must escape from an army of ravenous spiders set on eating them alive will be particularly terrifying for any arachnophobes out there.
Chamber of Secrets is far from the best of the Potter movies, but is definitely the superior Columbus effort. The director didn’t return again for another outing and, taken as a whole, his two movies do stand out as the more child-friendly of the bunch. They had the unenviable task of setting up the Potter universe and easing us into the complex story and, Chamber especially, does do this well.
Much like its predecessor though, the end of Chamber is marred by a shocking example of Headmastering by Dumbledore. Fresh from the House Cup scandal of 2001, he pops up again to make another shocking decision. This time, due to recent events, Dumbledore decides that all exams will be cancelled. Wow. The Daily Mail will have a field day when they hear about this, never mind what the OFSTED reports will say. A few kids got frozen and one of you had to find a big snake…..so all your work this year is pointless; you can all just pass anyway. What kind of second rate education institution is he trying to run here? Honestly …broken Britain.