Victoria Segal - Farewell to charms

Film - Hippogriffs give way to evil, death and raging hormones, writes Victoria Segal

Harry Pot

Sex. Violence. The occult. Given advance reports about the new Harry Potter film - far too frightening for children - you could be forgiven for expecting Goblet of Fire to be nothing less than Kenneth Anger goes to Hogwarts, Scorpio rising along with Hermione's hormones. Ron has not taken to wearing a black leather biker jacket and the whole thing is largely sailor-free, but even so, Mike Newell's film tackles one of the grimmest instalments in the boy-wizard franchise: the whimsical enchantments of J K Rowling's world giving way to the horrible realities of death, untrammelled evil and, most horrible of all, teen-age sexual confusion.

For the benefit of the statistically insignificant proportion of the population who have neither read the books on the train in the mornings nor seen previous instalments in the series, Goblet of Fire begins with the heroic teenage wizard visiting the Quidditch World Cup, a CGI-heavy scene reminiscent of Blade Runner's futuristic, high-altitude cityscapes. (The campsite where Harry and his friends stay, however, is worryingly like Glastonbury - all the magic in the world and they still haven't managed to eradicate jugglers.) It is at this wizarding jamboree that the Death Eaters, evil followers of the rejuvenated Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), decide to regroup and, in an impressively frightening scene, lay waste to the camp and leave the admonitory "dark mark". Never mind that it's a rather declasse snake coming out of a skull's mouth, more suited to a roadie's tattoo than a sign of the ultimate Lord of Darkness - it's wonderfully creepy.

Harry also finds himself caught up in the Triwizard Tournament, an inter-school competition held at Hogwarts. There are some great set pieces here - a giant dragon to fight, lashing tiles off the school roof with its tail, grindylows and mermaids to outwit and, finally, a sinister maze with breathing walls. In the course of this Herculean trial, somebody dies. Somebody else is tortured. Not everyone is who they say they are. Ralph Fiennes looks truly ghastly: a serpentine Nosferatu with flattened nostrils. It's all impressive and, yes, quite scary, certainly intense enough to thrill younger children, then send them checking nervously under their beds for a month.

Finding a date for the winter ball looms as large in Harry's mind as his destined meeting with his magical nemesis. This is the Clearasil Harry Potter - You-Know-Who might be a fearsome opponent, but even he can't make Harry spit out a mouthful of pumpkin juice, as Harry does when Cho Chang (Katie Leung) smiles at him. When the glorious French girls of visiting Beauxbatons Academy walk down the hall, Ron's jaw drops. "I like it when they walk," he says. The ball itself - soundtracked by Jarvis Cocker and members of Radiohead - is a marvellously convincing hormonal frenzy. Emma Watson gets to blossom as Hermione - that old Hollywood trick of having a girl who was never that plain play the "plain girl" - and is allowed to date Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ianevski), the brooding alpha-male champion of the distinctly communist Durmstrang Institute. There's lots of crying on stairs and flouncing off, just one oestrogen surge short of girls yelling, "Leave him, Harry! He's not worth it!"

All the usual failings of the Harry Potter films are present: it's abruptly edited but still too long, you need to have a working knowledge of what Polyjuice Potion is to understand it fully, and the young stars haven't improved a great deal since the first film. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry) still subscribes to the "Show anger! Show fear!" school of acting. Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) has little to do but swear wryly and ogle girls, while you're constantly waiting for the cut-glass Emma Watson to burst into a song from Cats.

Even so, the proper grown-up actors are excellent. It's a terribly British way of showing off: while American blockbusters work on a proliferation of effects, Harry Potter flashes its acting talent. Michael Gambon is Dumbledore, Maggie Smith is Professor McGonagall, Alan Rickman is woefully underused as Snape, David Tennant is particularly nasty as Barty Crouch, Jr - and that's before you get to Miranda Richardson, Roger Lloyd Pack and Timothy Spall. If Voldemort had blown up the set, British theatre would have ceased to exist.

For the first time, adults might actually enjoy a Harry Potter film as much as children. Gone are the Every Flavour Beans, the hippogriffs and the boarding-school japes, and in their place comes something nastier and much more grown-up.

For children, it's the cinematic equivalent of a trainer bra: getting them ready for the genuine horror, sex and gore that awaits them - and doubtless Harry - when they reach adulthood. He might be just 14 but, with this film, Harry Potter begins to come of age.

This article first appeared in the 21 November 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Guantanamo