WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: Despite the mischievous efforts of an elf called Dobby, Harry and friends arrive for their second year at Hogwarts, only to find danger lurking round every corner. Threatening graffiti warns that the mysterious Chamber of Secrets has been opened, unleashing a beast that attacks and petrifies those it comes into contact with, including Harry’s muggle-born friend Hermione. But what has the Chamber got to do with Ron’s sister Ginny and a diary belonging to some chap called Tom Riddle?
The good news for Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) at the start of Chamber of Secrets is that he now has his own bedroom; the bad news is that his Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) still considers him a nuisance, and despite making friends at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in his first year, none of them appear to have bothered writing to him in the holidays. Matters are made worse when a self-flagellating House Elf called Dobby appears, warning Harry not to return to the school and doing his level best to prevent him from leaving, but with the assistance of Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), his brothers and their father’s flying Ford Anglia, they eventually make it to Hogwarts.
Harry and Ron meet up with their friend Hermione (Emma Watson) and also their new Defence against the Dark Arts teacher, Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), a conceited braggart who tells a great tale but goes strangely quiet whenever there’s serious wizarding to be done. And serious wizarding is precisely what’s needed when blood-red messages start appearing on the walls of the school, warning that the ages-old ‘Chamber of Secrets’ has been opened by the ‘heir of Slytherin’, Slytherin being a founder of Hogwarts who despised the idea of muggle-born students (ie. from non-wizard parents) attending the school. Harry, Ron and Hermione are convinced that Harry’s arch-enemy Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is the heir, but the truth is far more sinister; and when Hermione is petrified, Harry’s giant friend Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) is wrongly arrested for opening the chamber, and Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) is captured, Harry and Ron, with the reluctant assistance of Lockhart, must put themselves in mortal danger by entering the chamber and facing the basilisk – a huge snake – that dwells there, as well as an even greater danger.
When Chris Columbus directed Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, he had the distinct advantage of introducing J. K. Rowling’s creation to the world in cinematic form, with most deficiencies in the story overridden by the assault on the senses (causing newcomers to gasp ‘What’s that?!’ and Potter fans to go ‘So that’s how they showed that!’). Columbus has no such advantage with Chamber of Secrets and although the additions to the cast work well – Branagh is excellent as the vainglorious Lockhart and Miriam Margolyes fun as Professor Sprout – the fact that we now know Harry and his friends inevitably leads to greater scrutiny of the plot.
And it has to be said, it’s a great big unwieldy thing, on the one hand dealing with notorious pure-blood believers the Malfoys, the treachery of their servant Dobby and Harry’s suspicions about Draco; on the other, there’s the story of Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson), Tom Riddle’s diary and how it influences Ginny Weasley and, later, Harry himself; and on a third hand (it’s a magic story, after all), there’s a clue left in a trail of spiders which Hagrid knows too much about, since he knows quite a lot about the Chamber being opened fifty years previously. In the book these elements appeared to fit together seamlessly, but as Columbus faithfully recreates the novel, paying particular attention to the more visually exciting scenes (Ron and Harry chasing, and being chased by, the Hogwarts Express; Harry and Draco’s battle during Quidditch), there are long gaps between mentions of some of the plot threads and characters (especially Lockhart and, crucially, Ginny).
Chamber of Secrets is never boring as such, but it’s instructive that the second shortest book in the series has created the longest single film. As a last word on the plot, attentive viewers will no doubt notice the numerous unexpected interventions (the car, the bird, the sword) that come to Harry’s aid as the film plays out. These handy deus ex machina don’t spoil the film, and younger viewers will hardly notice them, but I can’t help but feel that these were less obvious in the novel (and if they weren’t, shame on you, J. K.).
It doesn’t help that the film is plagued by expository dialogue, and this appears to have adversely affected some of the actors. The children are all marginally better than they were in Philosopher’s Stone, possibly because they don’t say ‘Woah!’ nearly as much, but Radcliffe is still very much doing as he’s told and none of the youngsters are great at interacting with non-existent CGI things. Radcliffe’s exchange with Christian Coulson’s Tom Riddle also lacks drama.
As Professor McGonagall, Maggie Smith seems justly disdainful of most of her lines, and Robbie Coltrane’s delivery, particularly during the Quidditch game, is sometimes terribly lazy (Coltrane appears to have been spliced into several scenes, so he may have struggled for context). Thankfully, Richard Harris – for the final time, sadly – is always a serene presence as Albus Dumbledore and Jason Isaacs proves both hateful and sinister as Lucius Malfoy. Also, while there’s seemingly not much love for Dobby in the world, I quite enjoyed both Toby Jones’ vocal performance and the effects that bring him to life.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a perfectly functional adaptation of the novel, and some of its faults (whisper it quietly for fear of upsetting fans) undoubtedly belong to the source material rather than the film. However, Alfonso Cuaron would show how effective judicious trimming and a bit of flair could be in Prisoner of Azkaban; and it is just as well for Harry Potter’s story that (as director) Columbus’ voyage with the young wizard ended here.