There’s something satisfying when a prolonged set-up gloriously pays off. We’ve been hearing about this nasty Voldemort person for three long movies now and here, at the end of Mike Newell’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), we get our first look at him. There are a number of times when an actor is asked to hit a home run in the service of a film. Ralph Fiennes, tapped to be Voldemort, doesn’t appear until eighty percent of the movie has run its course but when he does he clears the bases.
The movie has other pleasures as well but they pale in comparison to this final scene, which is all theatrics and drama pitched at the level of opera. I try very badly to avoid comparing the movies to the J.K. Rowling books on which they are based as they are two separate things entirely but whereas the novel of Goblet of Fire was the first to truly expand the universe beyond the walls of Hogwarts castle, the film feels very staid, choosing to ignore the wider expanses of the wizarding world in any meaningful way. That’s just as well, the next film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) by David Yates, is all too concerned with that expansion and besides, there’s plenty going on with our three heroes as they face one of their stiffest challenges yet: finding a date to the dance.
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is back to school for year four of his training in the secret world of wizards and witches and his friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) are back as well. Harry Potter spent the summer with the Weasleys so I am denied my favorite portions of these movies, tales of Harry’s summer with his dimwitted non-magical extended family, the Dursleys, who begrudgingly look after him since his parents were murdered by Voldemort. The followers of whom, heavies called Death Eaters who dress like the Klan but in black, terrorize the World Cup of Quidditch, the favorite sport among the wizard community. Further distressing, the Triwizard Tournament has come to Hogwarts, a twice-a-decade event that pits one student in each of the world’s three great wizarding institutions against each other in a series of magical tests in which the winner receives “eternal glory” we are constantly told, despite the fact that in three years no one has mentioned the upcoming tournament. The trials of the tournament are dangerous and cruel, stretching the imagination that they would be allowed in a school but “the laws,” it’s explained “are binding.” Oh, I didn’t realize that, carry on with the dangerous battle royale for teenagers.
The participants are selected by putting their names into the Goblet of Fire, a smoldering chalice that then spits out the names of the chosen players. Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson) is selected from Hogwarts to compete against a girl from a magical French finishing school and a square-jawed meat-head from an eastern European academy. Naturally, Harry’s name is unprecedentedly called as well, owing to that fact that while he didn’t put his name in the goblet, it can be found in the title of the film. His competition in the trials and tests make up the crux of the action and some of it is spectacular, especially a battle with dragons, but the real thrust of the movie comes from budding maturity of Harry and his friends as friendships are tested by jealousy and competition for the affection of their classmates is fierce. Along with the tournament comes a winter ball, which means dancing and dates. Harry Potter, the only wizard ever to survive the deadly killing curse, is frozen in fear at the sight of a group of young ladies.
Harry, Ron and Hermione eventually do find partners and it turns out that Harry and Ron aren’t very good dates, whereas Hermione, who already has a biological head start on maturity over most boys and is miles ahead of these two, announces herself as the confident debutante of the school.
These simple interludes are sweet, they remind us that we’re in a school and that our heroes are no more than kids. There’s enough in these movies that removes the viewer from reality, having something to connect to is a welcome change. I’ve never fought a dragon, but I know the terror of revealing to a girl that you like her and hoping that she feels enough of the same way to accept your mumbled invitation to dance. Soon enough, Harry’s world will be dominated by death and war, simple social interactions will be more and more rare and director Mike Newell is wise to focus on them here. Watching Harry and Ron bore their companions is humanizing, they can’t be superheroes all the time.
Helping Harry in the tournament is the new teacher Mad-Eye Moody (Brendon Gleeson) a hulking adventurer with a false eye that rotates around in his head and can see through walls. There are a lot of scenery-chewers among the ranks of the faculty at the school and Gleeson submits his claim to have the most active teeth. He’s slightly bent, a mixture of vivid intensity and the feeling that he may not be all there.
All this builds up to the reveal of Voldemort, the evil wizard, waiting in the wings for nearly four films, now ready for the spotlight, who’s snake like appearance and blissfully unexplained lack of nose does not disappoint. As wonderful as the final sequence is, it marks the turning point in the timbre of the movies. The series will now firmly become about the path that brings Voldemort and Harry together, mainly at the expense of the wonderful secondary characters like the groundskeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and even Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) but the biggest loss is the innocence of our heroes, who will go from youths to warriors in a frightfully short time. There’s still some of the magical awe of initial films here in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) and it’s better for it. Soon someone will take a wand to it and make it disappear.