"In dark and evil times like these Harry, soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy." So intones Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) ominously to Harry Potter, in this fourth adventure based on the best-selling books by author J.K. Rowling. (If you or your children haven't yet read the books or seen the previous three films, you might want to stop here, do so, then proceed ahead.)
Many changes confront Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) in his fourth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but the main one is that Harry and his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are growing up. Now teenagers, they are wrestling with traditional teen issues, such as crushes and who to ask to the annual Yule Ball.
But beyond this, Harry and his pals are also dealing with more grown-up matters, such as the fact that evil does exist in the world, in this case in the form of Lord Voldemort, who has regained a human body and is intent on destroying Harry.
"The term 'enemies' doesn't do their relationship justice," says Radcliffe. "Harry hates Voldemort with every fiber of his being. He wants to murder him for killing his parents. At the same time, he is absolutely terrified of him."
And so should he be, as portrayed by Ralph Fiennes, who is no stranger to depicting evil characters (as his roles in Schindler's List and Red Dragon attest) "Lord Voldemort is someone who knows no love," declares producer David Heyman. "He thinks of love as a flaw. He is the embodiment of pure evil. Someone who is powerful and attractive. Ralph is an actor of great depth, and he captures the complexity of Voldemort's charisma and darkness brilliantly."
According to Fiennes, director Mike Newell (Dance With a Stranger and Four Weddings and a Funeral) "was very keen to explore Voldemort's unexpected mood swings, his explosive rage. There are moments when anger spits out of him at Harry and other moments when he can be almost pleasant."
"People are incredibly scary when they're charming, but you suspect they might suddenly do something very violent," Fiennes observes. "If you sit across the table from someone who offers you a glass of wine and a present, but you know that he stabbed his wife to death, it's quite unnerving."
Along with this, Harry and his cohorts are confronted with the death of one of their schoolmates, who is mysteriously murdered during the Triwizard Tournament. The loss is devastating for Harry and the whole school, as well as for the student's parents - and, as depicted by the filmmakers, promises to be a gut-wrenching experience for the audience too.
This is a darker and more mature Harry Potter than we've seen before, and the Motion Picture Association of America has responded accordingly, rating it PG-13 (the first such rating for the Potter films) based on its "sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images."
Parents should be aware that Harry and his friends are growing up and are dealing with more complex issues than they have in the past, and that this film may not be appropriate for young children.
"I think we've expanded our audience to include older kids," says Heyman. "The movie is centered more in the 9 to 17 age range now. But, hopefully, we'll still keep some of the younger kids as well. Our goal has been to remain true to the book, and kids certainly don't seem to mind that."
- Philip Murphy
See also: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban