‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ ***1/2
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Richard Harris, Tom Felton, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Kenneth Branagh, James Isaacs, and Miriam Margolies. Directed by Chris Columbus. Based on the novel by J.K. Rowling, Screenplay by Steven Kloves. Rated PG, 116 minutes
One of the challenges of writing reviews for a medical audience is to come up with the medical angle. There are three aspects for this wonderful adaptation of JK Rowling's second book.
The books portray an annual adventure for our hero, Harry Potter, and the producers of the series actually anticipate an annual production (it is like a printing press for money for them as well as an artistic triumph).
The movie will be challenged by the problem of pubescence amongst the critical characters, of course led by Daniel Radcliffe, a disarmingly charming young lad, who, as Harry Potter, seems as indelibly etched in our psyche as Harry's forehead has been scarred at birth. The character is utterly likeable and Radcliffe has learned to bring the character to life.
His heroism is self-effacing, and he wins by breaking the rules and being brave in the face of adversity. But now Daniel and his mum and dad want him to take a year off, and alas, his voice has already deepened and his features become no loner a wondrous boy. Daniel at 13 is already a year older than the fictional Harry is purported to be in the novel.
This biologic fate also befalls Rupert Grint, who plays Ron Weasley and Emma Watson, the irresistible Hermione Granger. Emma had the adversity of an arm fracture during the shoot to add a minor injury to the medical aspects of the Potter series. While she is an adorable girl, she promises to be a formidable woman, but hopefully not too soon to ruin our connections to this marvelously heroic cast.
The evil little blonde Eddie Munster, Draco Malfoy, played by Tom Felton, as the number one boy of the bad guy Slytherins, seems less hormonally altered than his age mates—thus is the problem with puberty; it is unpredictable and can ruin a movie production schedule. Perhaps the producers would wish for a leuprolide equivalent to keep these actors children for a few more years.
Instruction about the mandrake plant plays prominently in the early lessons for our young charges at Hogwart's Academy. The computer animation of the plants and the significance to the plot are separate issues. The plant has metaphoric, medicinal, and symbolic properties.
I remember as a boy being told about “Mandrake the Magician.” Little did I know that the plant was often thought the active ingredient for love potions. John Donne, the metaphysical poet used it in Elegies, 19: “Go and catch a falling star, Get with child a mandrake root, Tell me, where all past years are, Or who cleft the Devil's Foot.”
Medicinally, they are in the nightshade family, Solanaceae; Mandragora autumnalis and officinarum. They produce hyocyamine and scopolamine, antihistamines with soporific qualities.
As I accidentally found on the Discovery channel, according to those who believe Jesus' death was a hoax, the sponge soaked in gall and herbs offered when he became thirsty during crucifixion may have been laced with the mandrake root and induced a stupor confused with death. This allowed him to be brought to the tomb alive possibly and able to escape to reappear and fulfill prophecy.
The mandrake plant plays a curious role in this movie, especially its literal roots, but the roots and legends about it are typical strands for Rowling to weave into her plots.
The more tragic and unalterable medically related change in the familiar cast is the irreplaceable loss of Richard Harris, the headmaster magician, Albus Dumbledore. Harris succumbed to Hodgkin's disease on October 25, just as the movie was released. It has been said that he took the Dumbledore role only after his 11-year-old granddaughter threatened to not speak to him if he refused the part.
My favorite quote from him: “There are too many prima donnas in this business, and not enough action”—a verity that equally and perhaps more aptly applies to our craft than his. I remember him fondly as Richard Burton and Peter O'toole's drinking buddy. I wish there were magic to bring him back, but alas we will need to adjust to someone new in this critical role (reportedly Michael Gambon), and we will have to mourn the loss of a great performer.
I marvel at some of the lore that surrounds Harry, a blessed and marked-for-greatness orphan. His owl, Hedwig, is named after Saint Hedwig, the patron saint of orphans. Albus Dumbledor's first name connotes whiteness, the traditional color of purity. Draco Malfoy perhaps is named after the overbearing emperor of Rome, whose first name brings us the adjective “draconian.”
This story opens at Harry's mean guardian's address at 4 Privet Drive. His uncle and cousin are adorned in bow ties and churlish as in the first movie, but perhaps a few pounds heavier. They are a disgrace to the bow tie crowd in their mean-spirited and self-centeredness.
Dobby the house elf makes his debut as a computer-generated creature that looks as if he suffers from progeria—see-through nude-mouse-like skin with overgrown floppy ears and exaggerated saucepan eyes. Harry receives a warning from the ambiguous Dobby that doom awaits at Hogwarts and he best not return if he knows what is good for him. Is Dobby a good elf or an emissary from the troll that lives under the bridge?
Transport to Hogwarts is a little more complicated, but Ron Weasley helps rescue him from his cell-like room via a flying Ford Anglia. The computer-generated aspects of the movie are sufficiently real to make the magic come alive. It is the magic that lends the fantastic child-worthy tales of Harry Potter captivating to all ages.
My personal favorite was the legend and handling of the mandrake plants and the careful re-potting necessary without being affected by the baby plants wailing.
Finally, the train at track 93/4 pulls out without them, but the flying Anglia delivers them to the very active boughs of a gnarled tree that wants no part of a flying auto in its limbs.
New Twists, Welcome Familiar Faces
The intrigue at Hogwarts has a few new twists but some welcome familiar faces. Added to the kindly Dumbldore, Professor McGonagal (Maggie Smith), and Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) are back, along with the gentle giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane).
His Aryan-appearing father joins the menacing fair-haired bully, Draco Malfoy. Lucius (Lucifer?) Malfoy has long flaxen locks and spouts fascist and racially pure propaganda. Apparently only pure wizards should be welcomed in the Malfoy regime, and “mudbloods,” impure contaminants from ordinary “muggles” genes, like Hermione Granger should be driven out.
The Malfoys plot to dislodge the kindly Dumbledore, a plot twist even more malicious now that Dumbledore will not be back, at least in the same form, in the next episode.
Kenneth Branagh joins the cast as the Professor of Dark Arts, an academic poseur who claims mastery at magic but proves himself to be more a buffoon and blowhard than a paragon. The joyful new professor on the biology faculty is Professor Sprout, whose job it is to educate about mandrakes.
This movie is creepy scary as opposed to dreadful scary. Spiders scuttle along, blood drips from clues on the wall, and John Cleese is not the only apparition to appear. Apparently the secret and the chamber have created more than one catatonic denizen from Hogwarts.
My littlest one, a four year old, wanted to leave before the movie started because it was scary. She was enchanted by Harry and didn't stir throughout. She says she wants to be Hermione.
Our hero in the end deals with the scariest beast in the simplest way. One of the critical abilities that dear Harry has is his ability to hear and speak to serpents. He does so in the first movie and then as a critical ability in this one. Indeed this would surely qualify him as a member of Slytherins!
Dumbledore's sage advice and the take-home message for me is that it is not the talents that you are born with but the choices that you make that determine your mettle.