This fourth film, adapted from the JK Rowling novel, continues the mood initiated by the previous and best of the sequence, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which imported something of the night into what was threatening to become, under Chris Columbus's rule, a kingdom of the bland where the four-eyed boy was king. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the director Mike Newell and his cinematographer Roger Pratt have kept the colour palette dark, draping Hogwarts in a pall of Gothic gloom and cranking up the tension to new levels of tautness. This isn't just a new chamber of ghouls; this is a confrontation with unregenerate evil and murder most foul.
What's more, in a series notable for its transfigurations and metamorphoses, Harry Potter has himself changed into something new and faintly terrifying: an adolescent. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is now 14, and the veils of innocence around his schooldays are being stripped away. Peer-pressure is a hazard even among wizards-in-waiting, and the irrational stock market of social popularity governs Hogwarts as much as any other school. Ever the reluctant celebrity, Harry is even being doorstepped by the tabloids, in this case by a scandalmonger named Rita Skeeter (Miranda Richardson), who's chasing the wave of anti-Harry sentiment coursing through the school corridors. "Potter stinks" is the badge everyone's wearing at the moment, and even his best friend Ron (Rupert Grint) is turning his nose up at him.
The reason for this antipathy is founded on a misperception. Hogwarts is to host the Triwizard Tournament, wherein a contestant from each of the three most prestigious magic schools must brave mortal dangers to win the coveted Triwizard Cup. Hogwarts' own Mr Popular, Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson), has been selected to represent the school by dint of the Goblet of Fire - imagine a flame-grilled version of the Lotto balls. But then the Goblet mysteriously spits out the name of a fourth competitor: no prizes for guessing who. Harry didn't submit his name to the contest, and protests that he didn't want to compete in any case. This cuts no ice with his Hogwarts peers, who believe our hero is motivated by vanity, hence the campaign of bad-mouthing launched against him. Sometimes it's tough being a boy wonder.
The perilous obstacle-course that makes up the tournament will involve dodging dragons, swimming the depths of a murky lake and navigating a fiendish maze, though these tasks look like a cakewalk compared with the personal challenge facing Harry: he must find a date for the Yule Ball. The series has been rather coy in dealing with romance so far, and doesn't altogether overcome its shyness here. Harry asks the lovely Cho Chang (Katie Leung) to the ball, only to get a regretful knock-back (her card is already marked). More intriguingly, he later gets to frolic in a foam bath with a transparent sprite (Shirley Henderson); not quite the erotic initiation he hoped for but better than anything I remember at 14. As for Ron, he's failed to pick up the signs that Hermione (Emma Watson) might be secretly smitten by him. "Boys!", she howls in disbelief, a succinct expression of just how far advanced of her doltish pals she is. But the film finds comedy in their backwardness. When Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) gives a lesson in waltzing, she picks Ron for her demonstration partner. "Place your hand on my waist", she instructs him. "Where?" he asks in stiff alarm. At such moments Harry and Ron look less like junior wizards than the natural heirs of Jennings and Darbyshire.
These are the best moments in a film that never finds a settled rhythm or narrative fluency. As usual, there is a too-strident emphasis on the big set-pieces, such as the Quidditch World Cup that kicks off the story, the drawing of names from the Goblet of Fire (only Fifa could match it for portentousness) and the shenanigans of the Triwizard Tournament. Newell handles this unfamiliar material competently enough, but the film never picks up any true momentum. "I love magic!" cries Harry in delight. Problem is, this isn't magic, it's special effects, and rather tinny ones at that.
I liked the emergence of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), his face outlined on the coals of a crackling fire, and there's an elemental spookiness in the face-off between Harry and his arch-enemy Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), but for most of the time the film, with its reaction shots of awed or anxious expressions, is telling us about wonderment rather than providing it.
There remains another stumbling block. The trouble with Harry is Radcliffe, whose expressiveness has developed not a whit. He has become the lame duck of the cast, an impression compounded by his proximity to the burgeoning confidence of Watson and Grint. Warring elements of self-doubt, resourcefulness and daring require a greater vivacity than this young actor can muster.
This latest Potter offers incidental pleasures, such as Brendan Gleeson's Professor of Defence Against the Dark Arts - a goggle-eyed Ancient Mariner with a false leg - and Alan Rickman's ever-reliable turn as the whey-faced Dickensian scold Professor Snape. And, while reports of its scariness have been exaggerated, the film opens up vistas of dread and disquiet that may make the next episode the most compelling yet.