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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 11 July 2007
This fifth in the Harry Potter series is adapted (by a screenwriter new to the series, Michael Goldenberg) from the longest novel (870 pages) so far, but ends up the shortest (139) Potter movie to date. Naturally, new director David Yates has to scramble to get everything in, which makes for a frantic pace but a lot of confusion, with many elements that were strong in the novel greatly reduced here, or eliminated altogether. Also, Warner Bros. seems to have reined in the budget somewhat; though the film has a lot of special effects, they still seem far fewer than in previous Potter outings. And though there are some grand sets, others seem almost as flimsy as backdrops in a high school play.

Nonetheless, J.K. Rowling’s original material is very strong, and the almost overly fast pace sweeps the viewer along to a less-than-apocalyptic ending. This is very much part of a story, not a story in itself, and for those for whom this is their first Harry Potter movie are likely to be frequently confused, even distracted. But for Potter fans, this is great fun—even if it seems like a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book version of the original novel; in essence, detailed illustrations for the novel rather than a full-bodied dramatization.

It’s summer, and Harry Potter (as always, Daniel Radcliffe) is living with his Muggle (non-magical) family in Surrey. No sooner has the movie begun than Harry and his oafish cousin (Harry Melling) are attacked by spectral Dementors, which should be on duty guarding magical prison Azkaban; Harry uses his wizard’s wand to rescue them. He receives a talking letter informing him he’s been expelled from Hogwarts Academy, but his friend and teacher “Mad-Eye” Moody (Brendan Gleeson) arrives with some companions on broomsticks and whisks Harry off to London to stand trial. He cannot convince them that he had to use his magic or let himself and his cousin die, and that this is all the work of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), whom no one but Harry and his friends believe has returned from the dead. But the timely intercession of Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) gets Harry off the hook.

Harry is taken to a secret London lair where he’s happy to meet his godfather, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), still believed by the Ministry of Magic to be an evil murderer, mostly because he escaped from Azkaban. Harry is also reunited with classmates Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). The Weasley family, especially Ron’s twin older brothers (James and Oliver Phelps) are important in this story; even their father Arthur (Mark Williams) becomes involved.
At Hogwarts, Harry is surprised to meet ethereal Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), who’s the only person other than Harry who can see the leathery, skeletal winged horses, Thestrals, that draw the Hogwarts carriages. Eventually, Harry again meets Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), the huge groundskeeper beloved by Harry and his friends, scorned by their rivals. Also returning are Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Sybil Trelawney (Emma Thompson) and the dreaded Severus Snape (Alan Rickman).

But the teacher who presents the biggest problems to Harry and his friends is the newly-appointed Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), there to make sure the dictates of the Ministry of Magic, as embodied by her, are followed. She’s small, plump, always clad in pink, and has an office lined with plates with meowing cats on them. And despite her almost perpetual smile, she’s harsh and cruel, especially toward Harry.

His friends assure him he’s not alone, so he gathers the most loyal and courageous; geeky Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) happens upon a Hogwarts room that appears only to those who need it, and Harry begins instructions in ways of magic now proscribed—by Dolores Umbridge. They dub themselves Dumbledore’s Army—partly because Dumbledore himself seems rarely to be around. The movie spends probably too much time showing their training, and doesn’t devote enough time to Harry’s individual problems.

This time, he keeps having visions of being a giant snake slithering through the dark hallways of the Ministry of Magic, and he finds himself growing angrier and angrier. Is he beginning to take on the characteristics of Lord Voldemort, who appears in his nightmares? He’s given private instruction by Snape, but this doesn’t seem to help much. Very important in all this is a huge warehouse at the Ministery, with twenty-foot-high shelves bearing glass globes containing prophecies.

The middle third of the film is choked with plot—Umbridge’s officiousness (she has the janitor post many notices), Dumbledore’s absence, Luna’s presence, Harry’s nightmares, classes, relationships with Ron and Hermione, relationships BETWEEN Ron and Hermione, the older Weasley brothers’ pranks, and more and more. The movie keeps up a good pace, but you have to concentrate—or have read the novel—to be able to tell what’s going on.

The movie seems deficient at times. In the last film, when Sirius communicated with Harry through a fireplace, his face was rendered in glowing coals; here, it’s merely a superimposition of a normal movie of Oldman’s face. This lacks the eerie magical feeling of the earlier scene. There are still moving pictures and paintings scattered about, but not as many as before; there are fewer magical creatures—Hagrid has a giant half-wit of a half-brother housed in the forest, and the centaurs are still there, but the giant is rarely used, and the centaurs are far less convincing than before. Here, magical spells seem to consist mostly of swirling, smoke-like emanations and twinkling sparks, as if from fireworks.

Cedric, who died at the end of the Triwizard Tournament in the last film, is occasionally mentioned as a victim of Voldemort, and we see his (moving) photograph, too. But there’s little sense of his place in the events unfolding before us. Near the end, some more prisoners (Death Eaters) escape from Azkaban, including Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, having a grand time being wicked), who’s related to Sirius but whose loyalty lies with Voldemort. She’ll turn up in the next movie too, but has relatively little to do here.

One interesting scene is a brief glimpse Harry has of the past at Hogwarts; he sees a quiet young Snape being badgered and bedeviled by none other than Harry’s own youthful father. This is a surprising scene, but has no real payoff in the current story. Nor, despite the title, does the Order of the Phoenix itself, an organization of right-thinking wizards (including Harry’s parents and Black), put together by Dumbledore to oppose Lord Voldemort.

Director Yates—who, perhaps unfortunately, is directing the next in the series—keeps things moving at a gallop, but allows very little time for emotional connection with the characters. Radcliffe is becoming increasingly charismatic—as is Harry himself—and holds the screen, but is required too often to look angry or anguished or both. The movie, and his character, has very little lightness, even though the book itself had plenty. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is dark and grim; there are almost no daylight exteriors, and interiors are often dark corridors of dark wood or polished stone walls.

Ralph Fiennes makes the most of his several appearances as the disturbingly nose-less Voldemort, striking sinister poses of power, gloating over Harry’s weaknesses and the like. Alan Rickman has only a few scenes as Snape, but makes masterful use of his opportunities, conveying a great deal with small gestures, whispered words and withering glances.

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is darker in visual tone than the previous films and, as mentioned, seems skimpy on special effects. Stuart Craig has been production designer for all the Potter movies; here, it’is rich and evocative, even witty at times. This is the first Harry movie for cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, who does a capable but not distinguished wide-screen work. Composer Nicholas Hooper is also new to the series, but his work is exceptionally good, including under the end titles—his music is so good it makes you want to sit through the long, long scroll of names.

In short: “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is a good Harry Potter, but not an exceptional Harry Potter.

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