Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Director : David Yates
Screenplay : Michael Goldenberg (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort), Natalia Tena (Nymphadora Tonks), Brendan Gleeson (Alastor “Mad- Eye” Moody), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy). Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Katie Leung (Cho Chang), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Emma Thompson (Sybil Trelawney)
As J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels have grown thicker and thicker with masses of interweaving subplots, back histories, and increased focus on tortured interiority, the art of adapting them successfully to the screen has become more and more difficult. The films are burdened with the twin demands of maintaining fidelity to Rowling's much-beloved pages and working successfully as movies (two very different things). If they were allowed running times in the three- to four-hour range (or, better yet, were made into television mini-series), it might be easier; but, even with recent blockbusters movies getting longer and longer, there is still a perceived need to keep the running time down.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth film in the series, is based on the longest of Rowling's novels, which runs nearly 900 pages in length. The film clocks in at just under 140 minutes, though, making it the shortest of the Harry Potter films. With the exception of Chris Columbus' first two entries, which were slavishly devoted to every bit of Rowling's novels, each Harry Potter film has excised large chunks of text in the service of narrative efficiency, but Order of the Phoenix has the misfortune of being the first to really feel like something is missing. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Contact), taking over from Steve Kloves (who adapted the first four novels), has chopped Rowling's sprawling novel down to size, but without disguising any of the axe marks. There is a sense of being rushed throughout the film without any real dramatic urgency; it is more like a speed-tour through the narrative's greatest hits, with each scene beginning a little too late and ending a little too early.
The film begins in fine form, with teenage wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), who faced down the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) at the end of the last entry, more alone and disillusioned than ever. Director David Yates, a veteran of British television, demonstrates a flair for visual grandeur, as he places Harry in an isolated playground that reflects Harry's dark emotional state. Unfortunately, this connecting of the visual and the emotional does not extend throughout the film; once the narrative is up and running, there is little time devoted to Harry's increasing anger and resentment, a result of both his personal exile and continued struggle with the fine art of growing up. Having seen Harry through four previous installments, there is a certain amount of carry-over in the emotional department, but Yates' film is content to glide along on these previous developments, rather than strengthen and deepen them.
Order of the Phoenix does have the distinction of offering some pointed political barbs, the allegorical nature of which has been, of course, studiously denied by the producers. The chief villain this time around is not so much the snake-ish Voldemort (who is lying in wait, ready to spring again), but rather the twin evils of bureaucracy and denial. When Harry is attacked by a pair of grim-reaperish Dementors in the film's opening scene, he is pulled in front of a wizard kangaroo court and tried for illegally using magic. He is exonerated (just barely) and returned to his beloved Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but the political hijinks have just begun.
Arriving also at Hogwarts is Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), a truly loathsome politician in pink cashmere who takes the position of the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at the behest of the Ministry of Magic, the wizarding government whose spineless minister (Robert Hardy) denies the return of Voldemort out of both fear and political expediency. Umbridge is a frilly grandma-sadist who hides her mean streak behind a frosty, rosy façade of trilling diction and polite coughs, and her staunchly oppressive rhetoric about “loyalty” and insistence on complete control immediately brings to mind a certain U.S. President. Comparisons to Dubya aside, Umbridge is nonetheless one of the most memorable villains of the Harry Potter series, and Staunton brings her to life with a perfect air of barely disguised brutality.
With Hogwarts under Umbridge's thumb (she fills the school with educational “decrees” that slowly increase her power while sapping freedom from everyone else), it is up to Harry to teach his fellow students how to defend themselves against Voldemort, a fascinating form of rebellion that doesn't quite generate the emotional power you might expect. Around this core we have a number of fragmented subplots, all of which are drawn from the novel, but are not given sufficient screen time to develop any real importance. If The Order of the Phoenix doesn't quite live up to its predecessors, it's mainly because we constantly feel like we're just getting a taste of all the things in which we really want to indulge.
For example, Harry's romance with fellow student Cho Chang (Katie Leung) has no heat because they share literally one scene together, and a disgruntled house elf named Kreacher shambles on screen twice, but without his importance ever being explained. Harry's continued relationship with his exiled godfather, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), however, has just enough force of conviction to make the tragic developments of the film's final moments sting. Otherwise, the supporting characters are little more than walk-ons. Harry's best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are given virtually nothing to do, and Hogwarts groundskeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) makes little more than a cameo appearance. The only time the film feels like it's really invested is in the climax, as Harry has to dig deep inside his own feelings to repel Voldemort's attempt to possess his body.
Of course, when compared to the other recent CGI-glutted summer blockbusters (Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix stands above head and shoulders. The series has built such a strong narrative momentum at this point that it would take a blunder of epic proportions to make a bad Harry Potter movie--the characters are too rich, the opportunities for gorgeous cinematography and elaborate, lived-in sets too many, and the wealth of political and social allusions too tempting. Of course, in this respect, each film is a little more dangerous because it is resting on an increasing cushion of audience good will, and it doesn't take a Superman 3 or a Batman & Robin to recognize how quickly that can evaporate.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2007 Warner Bros.