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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

DIRECTOR: David Yates

CAST:

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, Gary Oldman, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Brendan Gleeson, Imelda Staunton, Jason Isaacs, Emma Thompson, David Thewlis, Tom Felton, Katie Leung, Evanna Lynch, Helena Bonham Carter, Robert Hardy, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Warwick Davis

REVIEW:

Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix is one of the longest novels in J.K. Rowling’s seven book series, but this fifth installment of the cinematic adaptation is one of the shortest movies, clocking in at only a little over two hours. To achieve this, screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, stepping in for Steve Kloves, responsible for bringing every other Harry Potter book to the screen, had to do a lot of chopping, condensing, and editing. There’s no denying that, as with Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire , much material has been sacrificed, and many fans of the book will complain about some of the omissions, but film and book are different mediums. Judged on its own merits as a cinematic entity, Order of the Phoenix not only works, it is far and away the best Harry Potter installment so far, lucid, streamlined, and faster-moving than its predecessors. Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire were markedly superior to Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets , and with Order of the Phoenix, the Harry Potter series has climbed to another level.

The evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is amassing his forces, but the Ministry of Magic, presided over by the weak-willed Minister Fudge (Robert Hardy), refuses to face facts, instead accusing Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) of spreading fear-mongering lies and sending the inquisitorial Dolores Jane Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) to Hogwarts to straighten things out. To make matters worse, Umbridge sets her sights not only on muzzling Harry, but neutering the entire student body by refusing to teach them defensive spells. Convinced that the Ministry’s coddling is leaving them defenseless against Voldemort, Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) form Dumbledore’s Army, an underground band of students taught in secret by Harry how to fight back.

All of the returning cast members have by now become their characters. Notable progress in acting is shown by Daniel Radcliffe, who has matured nicely, bringing more depth and projecting Harry’s fears and frustrations, as well as an emerging strength. There are moments here when Radcliffe displays more intensity than anything in the previous films. Like the series itself, Harry is arriving at a crossroads where he steps beyond the simple world of school and Hogwarts and toward becoming its defender. Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are fine in their sidekick roles, although neither is really given much to do in this installment. Michael Gambon, who sometimes seemed awkward or perfunctory as Dumbledore in Prisoner of Azkeban and Goblet of Fire, has started to make the role his own. Gambon is best when his Dumbledore is being gruffly commanding, and weaker when he tries to match Richard Harris’ warmth and charm. Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort has basically the same glorified cameo he had in the last film, but even so, he seems more prominent this time. Voldemort’s presence hangs over the entire movie like a dark cloud, and whenever he appears, Fiennes radiates pure malevolent evil (he makes enough of a sinister impression with scant screentime that I look forward to what he’ll get the chance to do in the final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in which Voldemort is finally present for large sections of the story). Gary Oldman brings a nice understated nobility to Sirius Black, reminding us, as with Batman BeginsGordon, that he’s fully capable of playing a good guy. Alan Rickman and Jason Isaacs are their ever deliciously sneering selves as the is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-villain Snape and the unambiguously sinister Lucius Malfoy. There are also three newcomers of some note: Evanna Lynch, whose preternatural calmness reminds one of a British Dakota Fanning, as Luna Lovegood, a spacey Hogwarts student who befriends Harry, Helena Bonham Carter, looking like she wandered in off the set of Bride of Frankenstein, as Sirius’ deranged cousin Bellatrix Lestrange, fanatical follower of Voldemort, and Imelda Staunton as the bureaucratic monster Dolores Umbridge. All three are fine, and Bonham Carter seems to be enjoying herself immensely, savoring every second of screentime and chewing the scenery like a mad dog (a sort of female version of David Tennant’s Barty Crouch Jr. from Goblet of Fire), but Staunton is easily the standout, and in fact comes close to stealing the entire show. It’s a rare feat for a performer to create a character this easy to despise. It’s the little details that make the character; every nuance of her sickeningly faux-sweet facade, from her blindingly pink wardrobe to her office walls covered with portraits of cats, to the rigid “nice” smile eternally plastered to her face. Staunton imbues every single expression, gesture, and spoken word with an insufferable blend of faky sweetness and her thinly-veiled underlying self-righteous petty cruelty that grows steadily more obnoxious until the audience can hardly bear her presence. In a nutshell, Staunton does her job with flying colors. The loathsome Umbridge gets plenty of screentime, but the rest of the teachers have little more than walk on roles, as do returning characters like Brendan Gleeson’s Moody and David Thewlis’ Lupin. There are a couple exceptions; for almost the first time, we come to some measure of understanding of Severus Snape and his contempt for Harry, and we get a few effective scenes between Harry and Sirius. Both Alan Rickman and Gary Oldman make impressions with limited material. In fact, a couple of the best scenes in the movie are between Harry and Sirius, and Rickman has a couple occasions where his screen presence is surprisingly commanding; we can well understand why he is intimidating to Harry.

Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix has come a long way from the early entries in the series, both chronologically and in entertainment value, and it’s easily the strongest entry yet. There’s a healthy helping of darkness here- the PG-13 rating is warranted- and a minimum of childishness. We get a real sense of something dark and ominous looming overhead, and the villains radiate malevolence. In fact, it is not the archvillain Lord Voldemort, but the petty tyrant Dolores Umbridge who supplies the movie’s most indelible display of cruelty (you’ll know exactly what scene I refer to when you see it). This scene is uncomfortable enough to be squirm-inducing, and has nothing to do with the Dark Lord. The film is more action-oriented than its predecessors, and despite the running length approaching two-and-a-half-hours the pace is tighter and more focused; where the previous films had a tendency to get bogged down in irrelevant tangents and dull scenes and subplots, Order of the Phoenix moves purposefully forward, with only one or two slow moments to be found, and builds to a climactic confrontation more rousing than anything we’ve seen thus far. Just when we’re getting excited by Harry and his friends facing off against Voldemort’s Death Eaters, the Dark Lord himself shows up, and then so does Dumbledore, and we have a titanic, if all too brief, duel between two immensely powerful wizards the likes of which we have not seen anything approaching in the series. If the last four movies were set-up, we’re now finally getting into the meat of the good vs. evil story which we’ve been leading up to for a long time. The only things some viewers might miss is the whimsy and more ensemble tone of some of the previous films. In their streamlining of the story for a faster-paced movie, the filmmakers made a few missteps, in my opinion, about what to excise. The movie’s Umbridge, however wonderfully hissably she is played by Imelda Staunton, is left as more of a mere petty tyrannical teacher (albeit with a sadistic streak), while an omitted revelation about her in the book revealed how deep her malice really ran. A conversation between Harry and Dumbledore near the end, a major emotional moment in the book, is truncated to the point of flatness onscreen. Order of the Phoenix focuses more strictly on Harry and his internal struggles to the exclusion of Ron and Hermione. We only get a few Harry-Ron-Hermione scenes here; Order of the Phoenix is the most no-nonsense Potter installment, and the most centered entirely around Harry.

I’ve often felt that Harry Potter is underestimated and oversimplified by those who dismiss it as a kids’ story, and Order of the Phoenix touches on some themes adults are likely to appreciate more than children. J.K. Rowling makes a few clear jabs at bureaucracy, with the Ministry of Magic presented as a corrupt, ineffectual collection of politicians who would rather bury their heads in the sand than deal with crisis, terrified enough of facing up to reality that they try to simply shut Harry up, as if Voldemort won’t really be back if they can only make everyone stop talking about him. Umbridge is the ultimate bureaucratic monster, the embodiment of all the worst in bureaucracy, religion, politics, education, and authority, a representation of those people so convinced of their own righteousness that they can justify just about anything to themselves in the name of their own narrow self-appointed mission. She might be a fantasy character, she might be an exaggeration, but we’ve all met people who have a bit of Umbridge in them. Meanwhile, Harry is more burdened and haunted here than he’s ever been before, plagued by nightmares and Voldemort attempting to intrude into his mind, seething with anger and frustration about his treatment at the hands of the self-serving Ministry, and feeling abandoned by those around him. One of the best scenes in the movie is a nicely understated conversation between Harry and Sirius (Radcliffe and Oldman play well off each other) in which the boy unburdens his worst fear: what if the reason for his mysterious connection to Voldemort is that they’re more similar than different? Sirius’ answer is lucid and intelligent: ‘We all have both light and dark inside us. It’s what we choose to act on that’s who we truly are.’ Later a variation of this theme is repeated by Harry to Voldemort himself: ‘You’re the weak one. You’ll never know love. Or friendship. And I feel sorry for you’. This, more than any other moment in probably the entire series, is Harry Potter’s overriding theme encapsulated in a line of dialogue.

Starting out as kids-oriented, whimsical, mostly lighthearted fantasy adventure, Harry Potter has progressively added more darkness and danger into the mix with each installment, and the series continues to improve, with Order of the Phoenix being yet another strong step forward. Director David Yates doesn’t leave as much of his own distinctive stamp on Order of the Phoenix as Alfonso Cuaron did with Prisoner of Azkaban; like Goblet of Fire director Mike Newell, he competently maintains the Harry Potter mix of fantastical adventure and gathering darkness. Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg have done an efficient job of whittling the hefty novel down into a streamlined, purposeful, sometimes exciting movie while (mostly) retaining the essential points. Yates is already signed on for the next entry in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, scheduled for summer 2009, to be rejoined by screenwriter Steve Kloves, who has adapted every one of J.K. Rowling’s enormously popular books to the screen except for Order of the Phoenix. If the series maintains its upward momentum, fans of Harry Potter and the fantasy genre still have two more films to anticipate.

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