The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, January 17, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Originally published 7/25/07
Full review behind the jump

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

: David Yates
: Michael Goldenberg, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling
: David Heyman, David Barron
: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Ralph Fiennes, Imelda Staunton, Robert Hardy, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Jason Isaacs, Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson, Evanna Lynch, Katie Leung, James Phelps, Oliver Phelps, Brendan Gleeson, Helena Bonham Carter, David Thewlis, Matthew Lewis

One of the things I’ve always loved about the
Harry Potter series (Full Disclosure: I am caught up on the films but have only read the first two novels), is that despite all the marvelous adventures it describes, it never forgets to stick up for the virtues of good schooling. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry hires the cat-fancying, primly-fascistic Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) to take over the oft-vacated post of Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher. With her twin loves for rote memorization and corporal punishment, she’s like the darkly inevitable endgame of the No Child Left Behind program, and armed with truth serums to boot. Starved for real education just when they need it most, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his fellow students do just about the most rebellious thing they can think of – they sneak away to learn on their own.

This dovetails into the other resonant theme of
Phoenix: that we start to take on grown-up responsibilities just in time to appreciate how terrifyingly unprepared we are for them. Potter’s fame among magic-users stems from how, as an infant, he survived an attack by the megalomaniacal Lord Voldemort, who murdered his parents along with many others before vanishing. Death and loss have always been present threats to him. But now that Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is indisputably back from the dead, and marshaling his forces for another war against decency, the threat is much bigger than Harry, and encompasses the friends and teachers who have become his new family, as well as the whole world.

That’s the stakes upon arrival at this fifth of seven planned
Potter pictures. The stars have grown from pre-adolescents to ambitious young adults, and the stately aura of discovery and wonder that coated the early films like gleaming wax is well-worn off. This, the longest of the books, is stripped down into the shortest yet of the movies, focusing now on straight, urgent plot. After four movies’ worth of darkening skies and ominous portents, Phoenix moves like an express elevator to the blackest depths.

The director, David Yates, is not a safe populist like Chris Columbus (who helmed the first two pictures), nor does he show the vivid artistry of the third movie’s Alfonso Cuaron or the colorful thoroughness of the fourth movie’s Mike Newell. He’s a veteran of BBC miniseries, an excellent shooter who is intentionally not here to impose a voice of his own. We miss that extra layer of delight, but in a sense, Phoenix signals a surrender to the book series’ superior breadth – it can finish the tale at a ripping pace and with the expected production values, but more and more you will glimpse tantalizing hints that there’s more to know and love about these characters as they go whizzing by.

Although Potter saw Voldemort’s re-emergence, and his murder of classmate Cedric Diggory, not everyone is willing to face the reality of it. There’s a struggle for power between Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, now fully comfortable in his interpretation of the role he took over from the late Richard Harris), and head wizard Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), who along with most of the wizard world is in fierce denial. Umbridge is an agent of Fudge’s, and she is gradually exerting more control both over the school and the behavior of its students. There’s barely enough wall space outside the Great Hall to accommodate all her disciplinary proclamations. Harry knows that the students will soon need to understand the very dangerous spells which get cast when you’re fighting for your life, so he starts conducting secret classes. As always, he’s backed up by best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), who isn’t so clumsy with his wand as he used to be, and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), who takes to flouting authority with all the studious zeal she normally applies to getting top grades.

Harry's sessions parallel the Order of the Phoenix, another secret society, and one which Harry’s parents once belonged to in the first war with Voldemort. The more he becomes aware of its activities, the more he realizes that the grown-ups who’ve been helping him over the years, like Dumbledore, or dark wizard hunter “Mad-Eye” Moody (Brendan Gleeson), or the earnestly kind Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), or Harry’s encouraging surrogate father, the fugitive Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), have been more coordinated and aware than he’s given them credit for. By glimpsing their secrets, becoming privy to their maneuverings, he’s finally joining the grown-ups table. And not a moment too soon, in his mind; this Harry is temperamental and stubborn, no longer the goggle-eyed kid surprised by everything.

Rowling’s rich imagination has yet to provide anything short of a banquet of whimsies and horrors for these screen adaptations. Voldemort is savage but not stupid, his emotional assault on Harry is insidious as any spell he could cast. We’re learning more about the prior lives of the teachers at Hogwarts, and that it’s possible Harry isn’t the first Potter to have misjudged the socially-maladjusted Professor Snape (Alan Rickman, bringing his usual venomous authority). We’re on a much larger playing field this time, spilling out of Hogwarts into London proper, and we're about to witness just what a duel between proper wizards looks like. And in the midst of it all, Harry is facing not only doubts about his own nature (he wonders just how he and Voldemort can share such a connection), but the perils of dating. No sooner does he enjoy his first kiss, with last year’s crush Cho Chang (Katie Leung), than he develops a compellingly odd kinship with the, herself, compellingly odd Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch, effortlessly spacey).

The script, by Michael Goldenberg, is lean and efficient to suit the movie, although it does lack some of the flourish of Steve Kloves’ work on the rest of the franchise. Every viewer will surely have some quibble over just how much or little more detail they might have desired about something or other. There’s a compact of faith now between viewers and these movies; we must trust that magical objects and spells behave in certain ways simply because that is what has been told to us, there’s precious little time to get into the mechanics of it.

In a way that’s proper, because when you’re first suffering the adult world without a safety net, scary and awful things can happen with the most unforgiving suddenness and lack of explanation, and in this adventure Harry is going to experience a loss so keen it would have shattered his younger self. But he is no longer his younger self – he is inching closer towards becoming the hero this saga has been preparing him to be; and just in time, too, because the game is clearly afoot. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix does nothing to revitalize or reinvent the movie franchise. Instead it is the beginning of what should be an exhilarating sprint to the finish.


  • I thought Michael Goldenberg's adaptation in some cases enriched Rowling's fine creations, particularly in the case of Sirius, whose fate is telegraphed and made all the more poigniant by those moments of familial tenderness he shares with Harry. My favorite scenes are a toss-up between Dumbledore's "Blade" moment, when the stoutly-named Kingsley Shacklebolt comments on the headmaster's abundance of style, and that lovely moment during the battle with the Death Eaters, when Sirius, caught up in the action, calls Harry by his father's name. And Luna Lovegood is well-employed to sum up both the glories of pudding and touching musings on the finality of death. Imelda Stauton deserves a Best Supporting nod, cementing her reign supreme as the new Nurse Ratched.

    By Anonymous Mike De Luca, at 6:48 AM  

  • Goldenberg left out some important elements to the saga that had appeared in the OotP novel - namely Harry's growing friendship with Ginny, Sirus' mention of his brother Regalus and Kreacher's discovery of the Slytherin locket at the Black residence.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:26 PM  

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