Jacob Latimore, Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett star in director Kasi Lemmons' seasonal drama.
On Film4: 17 Dec 11:00AM
Thorough adaptation of the first instalment of JK Rowling's enormously popular fantasy saga. With some spot-on performances and excellent visuals it will keep children rapt and adults entertained
Given the book sales, you'll have either read them yourself, or acquired the basics by osmosis. Turning 11, abused orphan Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) learns of his magical heritage when he is invited to start at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Befriended by the outsized Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), he is introduced to the magic community. At Hogwarts, Harry falls in with swotty Hermione (Emma Watson) and goofy Ron (Rupert Grint), develops differing relationships with the staff - among them kindly Dumbledore (Richard Harris), hard but fair McGonagall (Maggie Smith) and suspicious Snape (Alan Rickman) - and proves a natural with a broomstick, earning him a role on the 'quidditch' sports team ("the youngest seeker in a century!").
With the density of detail in your average novel, screen adaptation is always tricky. But with a fantasy, there's always further exposition necessary to introduce the alternative culture. Such is the case with Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone. The result of Rowling's stringent contractual arrangements and authorial veto is a film that follows the books with thorough fidelity. This results in a pace that doesn't conform to typical film progression, with the scenario instead unfolding slowly, meticulously.
Paradoxically, the filmmakers have squeezed in so much of the book's magical trappings - the vast, castle-like school, its labyrinthine interior, the adjacent dark forest; the business of classes etc - and innumerable characters - staff and pupils alike - that the film doesn't have time to linger on any of the fantastic realisations of these things either.
One sequence that does have a generous amount of screen time is the main action set-piece, the quidditch match. This sport involving teams riding broomsticks and trying to chase, deflect and project three different types of ball through three-dimensions was nigh-on impossible to visualise from the descriptions in the book. But here the players swoop and weave through a vast stadium, replete with elevated stands and hoop-goals on tall poles. The action is suitably vertiginous.
Aside from the pacing problems (it takes 50 minutes to get to Hogwarts, 100 for the Philosopher's Stone to be mentioned) the film suffers a little from the curse of the child actor. Radcliffe's short CV includes playing the young David Copperfield for the BBC and appearing briefly as Geoffrey Rush and Jamie Lee Curtis' son in The Tailor Of Panama; he's hardly an experienced actor, and his repertoire of expressions isn't broad. It's quite a challenge to have inexperienced children holding together a two and a half hour film.
Thankfully, you can just about relax into the child stars, despite their lack of nuance. Plus, Coltrane, Smith, Bradley and notably Rickman (who serves up a malicious camp similar to that he used in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), provide some meatier characterisations and raise the overall dramatic standards.
Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone is, of course, a kids film. Although it suffers nominally from being over-stuffed and under-paced, it's grand and involving, with magnificent production design and special effects, and some fabulous thesps present and correct. All of which will make it at least a pleasurable experience for adult fans too.
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