It’s a fact widely acknowledged that the first two entries in the eight part Harry Potter adaptations, helmed by noted “bean counter” Chris Columbus, were the series’ weakest. Uninspiring, overlong and purely functional, they would serve as a wonder-filled and wide-eyed cinematic introduction to the wizarding world, but little more. It was only with the discerning choice of (now Oscar-winning) Alfonso Cuarón to direct the third film, and the growth of the central three of Radcliffe, Watson and Grint as actors that the HP films would take a turn towards the darker tone and more character-driven stories that would see the series become as well-respected (by both children and adults) as it eventually did. However despite the creative barrenness and awkward acting of HP’s early years, one shining light emerged to elevate Chamber of Secrets at least to above average – we speak, of course, of the great Kenneth Branagh’s hysterical performance as the pompous shyster and all-round slick git Gilderoy Lockhart.
Whatever can be said about HP author J.K. Rowling’s writing style, it can’t be denied that she has a gift for creating memorable, larger-than-life characters – Dumbledore, Hagrid, Dolores Umbridge and even Filch were well-drawn and fully realised, and with some pitch-perfect casting managed to make as big an impression onscreen as they had from the page. And few of these characters would be brought so vividly and hilariously to life with as little screen time as with Branagh’s portrayal of Lockhart. Rowling has said that Lockhart is the only character in her books that is based upon a real person – and whoever it is, we must thank, for providing the foundation for such a wonderful and endlessly quotable character.
As Lockhart, Branagh makes full use of his dashing and roguish screen persona – he simultaneously fulfils it in his puffed-up proclamations and general swagger, and subverts it as he is revealed as the devious and incompetent fraud we always suspected he would be. Upon meeting Lockhart at a brilliantly self-important book signing in bookshop Flourish & Blotts, and his re-introduction as the students’ surprise new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Branagh gets to ham it up spectacularly as he reels off a list of his accomplishments:
“Order of Merlin, Third Class, Honorary member of the Dark Force Defence League, and five times winner of Witch Weekly’s Most Charming Smile Award. But I don’t talk about that – I didn’t get rid of the Banden Banshee by smiling at him!”
His simpering grin and unabashed cheesiness absolutely steal the show – in every caddish line delivery it’s obvious that Branagh is having the time of his life, as he gleefully plays with Lockhart’s utter lack of self-awareness and cheerful regard of his own self-mythologised abilities. Even in terms of appearance the character is perfectly encapsulated, from his foppish blonde locks to his ostentatious wardrobe, which is topped by his gloriously naff quilted silver waistcoat. Branagh’s upper-crust good looks and winning smile sell the whole schmoozing package completely.
Going beyond Branagh’s performance, Lockhart is one of several Rowling creations that act as a commentary on or allegory for an aspect of society or culture. She expressed her famous dislike of the press with the Daily Prophet‘s vicious and very Daily Mail-like treatment of Dumbledore and Harry (amongst others), and she makes clear her disdain for politicians with her depiction of Ministry of Magic officials as bumbling and reactionary fools. Later books, having grown up with their audience, incorporate imagery of ethnic cleansing reminiscent of Nazism. Lockhart himself is both a joyous pillorying of the vacuousness of celebrity culture, and a playful lampooning of posh former public schoolboys – you don’t have to look at Lockhart for long to guess that he is the wizarding world’s equivalent of an old Etonian (just look at his hair!). His carefully-crafted public image and ultimate lack of substance would be very at home in a muggle world filled with talentless celebrities, and the lengths to which he goes in order to maintain his falsely-gained persona contain echoes of various celebrity scandals and super-injunctions. He acts like a seasoned pro, spouting meaningless platitudes to an unimpressed Harry about celebrity life – “fame is a fickle friend, Harry; celebrity is as celebrity does”, but quickly turns nasty once Harry and Ron stumble upon his dark secret.
It remains a great shame that the HP filmmakers weren’t able to find room in the fifth film, The Order of the Phoenix, to give Lockhart the surprising and fully-deserved reappearance that he makes in that book – based on his work in Chamber of Secrets Branagh would have been a more than welcome addition. His last meeting with Harry and Ron doesn’t end well for him, and three years later the backfiring memory-wipe spell that caused him to forget who he is has still not worn off – his reunion with the pair is a poignant moment as they see how far their former teacher has fallen from grace. As it is Branagh’s contribution to HP remains limited to just the one film – but his legacy is one that led the way for the great run of a series of scene-stealing appearances from the best British character actors, as various ill-fated DADA teachers. At least we have the memory of the time he magicked the bones out of Harry Potter’s arm:
“Ah, yes… that can sometimes happen. Um, but, uh, the point is, uh, you can no longer feel any pain. And very clearly, the bones are not broken.”
“Broken?! There’s no bones left!”
“Much more flexible, though.”