Film Review Archive


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

The last Harry Potter troubled me with its covert racial references and its genetic determinism, not to mention its blatant pro-aristocracy anti-lower middle class smugness. This time, however, the movie confronts race and class head-on. The question of mixed origins becomes the motor that drives the plot, and it's a good one this time, with enough depth to keep a grown-up interested in the story. Watch out, though-its length is epic.

This installment of the series also finally achieves episodic status, developing enough narrative intrigue to keep its audience attentive and ready for Harry Potter's future (it even warns us about impending adolescence). It's a delightful mix of genres, with medieval romance occupying the foreground after the fashion of the Star Wars series. But there's also race melodrama, with Hermione (Emma Watson) playing the almost-role of the tragic mulatta; and there's detective mystery, since our trio of youngsters follows clues to unravel a secret plot. It's also a historical gothic fiction, telling the story of the fantastic events that shape the present institutional politics of Hogwarts school. All in all, there's a lot to keep audiences occupied. And if you wanted to psychoanalyze, its fairy tale-like allegory of the onset of adolescence could also keep you amused (huge snakes in deep dank tunnels underground and all that).

The special effects are as dazzling as ever, with enough of the old tricks for continuity, and enough new ones to satisfy the need for novelty: a magical car that flies; a ruby-red phoenix who burns up and rises anew from the ashes; a blank diary that writes itself in answer to penned queries; and, of course, all the usual magical stuff.

Kenneth Branagh shows up in this one, as the famous wizard Gilderoy Lockhart, heartthrob of the ladies and unregenerate narcissist. He must be there for comic relief, because his presence-though entertaining (Branagh is a splendid actor)-adds nothing to the plot. Moaning Myrtle, on the other hand, played by Shirley Henderson, is truly wonderful as a ghost who met her untimely end in the girls' bathroom. Emma Watson, unfortunately, doesn't get to be part of the action for a lot of the movie. Hermione's smarter and more skilled than the boys (girls mature earlier), so she needs to be taken out to let them shine.

Like Star Wars, and like most, if not all, medieval romance, the true challenge and quest for our boy hero/protagonist is about discovering his origins and coming to terms with his paternal legacy. Remember Luke's confrontation with the troubling nature of his past? Well, that's the question here too, a question that is also at the heart of many race melodramas. Here, though, the message turns out to be anti-determinist. We see a glimmer of hope that people-or rather wizards-whatever their genealogical origins, have some choice about who and what they will become. Thank goodness Harry Potter is holding the line.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.