Dir: Alfonso Cuaron. US.2004.

Alfonso Cuaron brings a newstreak of magic to the Harry Potterseries in the third picture from JK Rowling's books, The Prisoner Of Azkaban. Draining the world of Hogwarts of colourand Hollywood trappings, Cuaron delivers a genuinely spooky and emotionallyinvolving adventure which gives the world of Potter much-needed character and atmosphere.

Cuaron focuses on everythingwhich Columbus apparently neglected: creating a palpable sense of fear,infusing Harry's character and Daniel Radcliffe's performance with genuine andbelievable angst, and toning down the excesses of the first two films whetherit be the ostentatious special effects, or the unwieldy running times.

It's a distinctive vision ofRowling's world which proves that ambitious film-makers left to their owndevices can bring cinematic bravado to summer blockbusters and still not diluteany of the playability. If audiences don't respond to Prisoner as widely as for the first two films, it is because thestory itself is dark and menacing. As in the book, the anxiety which engulfsHogwarts and its students when the castle is infiltrated by an escaped murdererand the grotesque dementors adds the first wave of chills into the thus-farrip-roaring story. As the series progresses, of course, and the children startgrowing up, those chills will become increasingly intense for younger kids.

As in Y Tu Mama Tambien, Cuaron hardly keeps the camera still for amoment. The opening scene, in which Harry puts paid to his dreadful Aunt Marge(Ferris) for speaking ill of his parents, has the look and mood of akitchen-sink TV drama. Shot on grainy stock, with Michael Seresin's camerajerking around wildly, the scene is devoid of the farce Columbus injected intothe Dursley household and sets the stage for Cuaron's recurring theme ofHarry's inner rage, loneliness and aching need for parental guidance.

Harry walks out on theDursleys after the aunt incident and is picked up by the purple Knight Buswhich takes him to Diagon Alley and the Leaky Cauldron pub where he stays anight before setting off for Hogwarts with his friends Ron (Grint) and Hermione(Watson). While in London, however, he learns that Sirius Black (Oldman), aviolent murderer involved in the death of his parents, has escaped fromwizards' prison Azkaban and is on the loose. Harry is warned that he might beBlack's target.

The journey to Hogwarts isnot, however, a smooth one. The train is besieged by Azkaban guards - thesoul-sucking Dementors - who seize on Harry and suck the life out of him,rendering him unconscious amid memories of the screams of his dying mother.Harry is rescued by the new schoolmaster Professor Lupin (Thewlis), an oldfriend of his parents who hides a dark secret.

The school term begins, buttrouble continues as the Dementors continue to torment Harry, it becomes clearthat Sirius Black is on the premises and long-hidden revelations come to light.

The film wastes no time inits storytelling and cameos by Emma Thompson and Julie Christie are thrown awayin the momentum. The three child actors, on the other hand, showheretofore-unseen talent in deepening their characters, guided by the stronghand of Cuaron who has already shown in ALittle Princess and Y Tu Mama thathe is a master at relating to teenage concerns.

Visually, Cuaron adopts anausterity in stark - and wonderfully moody - contrast to Columbus'sugar-coated, colour-drenched approach. Hogwarts, its neighbouring lake, hillsand forest have never looked so foreboding or bleak.

Prod cos: Heyday Films,1492 Pictures, Warner Bros Pictures.
Worldwide dist: Warner BrosPictures.
Exec prods: Michael Barnathan,Callum McDougall, Tanya Seghatchian.
Prods: David Heyman, ChrisColumbus, Mark Radcliffe.
Scr: Steve Kloves, based on thenovel by JK Rowling.
DoP: Michael Seresin.
Prod des: Stuart Craig.
Ed: Steven Weisberg.
Mus: John Williams.
Main cast: Daniel Radcliffe,Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, AlanRickman, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson, Robert Hardy, TimothySpall, Julie Christie, Tom Felton, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Pam Ferris,Dawn French