Since May, movie reviews across all media have been eager to exclaim finally, a summer movie that delivers! Now it’s my turn. While Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix isn’t the least artful film in the series, it is rather workmanlike in comparison to the films by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell. And yet I find myself enjoying it more than any previous entry. That is, it doesn’t stand out as did Cuaron’s film, but it easily gets the job done. New director David Yates has achieved a respectable balance between faithful attention to Rowling, character development and visual action. Order of the Phoenix is a well-paced, tense middle chapter with more exciting magic and better effects than the series has offered to date.
This is the first Potter film based on a book I haven’t read. As this is a one-time handoff of writing chores from Steve Kloves to Michael Goldenberg, resulting in a script said to be overly trimmed and unfriendly to non-readers, I was eager to evaluate the film’s clarity. But Goldenberg and Yates have come up with a chapter that satisfied me both as a continuation of the story and (inasmuch as possible) as a stand-alone film.
They’ve got a lot of plot to sort out: despite Lord Voldemort’s reappearance at the end of Goblet of Fire, Harry is dealing with a populace that doubts his veracity with respect to Voldemort. Dumbledore seems to be ignoring him, dealing as he is with a conflict with Ministry of Magic. Cornelius Fudge, the increasingly paranoid Minister, installs Dolores Umbridge as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. She quickly takes over Hogwarts as Harry battles dreams, builds an army and confronts multiple enemies.
Looking at the wiki summarization of the novel’s plot, I can see a few notable bits that have been left out or minimized. But they left few holes, gaping or small, in the film’s logic. I could have used more explanation about Voldemort’s need for a prophecy hidden within the Ministry and the background of the Order of the Phoenix, though neither omission is crucial to the film. At this stage, I’m satisfied knowing the prophecy’s claims with respect to Harry, which are clearly set out, if briefly so.
Harry’s ostracization and reacceptance by the students at Hogwarts, largely implied through action, are handled just fine. Though the scenes in which he trains other students are crafted by rote, I was happy enough to see more Hogwarts students actually using magic. I didn’t miss Rita Skeeter at all, and found that Yates’ screwball comedy use of newspaper photos and headlines was a perfectly acceptable tactic to disseminate extra plot details.
There’s a big change here from the rest of the series. Past films have felt either overly pagebound or episodic. As much as I enjoyed Azkaban and (so some extent) Goblet, both (particularly Newell’s film) felt like a relentless march to a foregone conclusion. And from film to film, each new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, even when relatively innocuous, has felt more like a villain of the week than an integral part of the story.
Goldenberg overturns both of those persistent issues in part because he’s got a great Dark Arts teacher to work with in Dolores Umbridge. As set on film by a wickedly great Imelda Staunton, her Thatcherian takeover of Hogwarts is put forth as an event that’s every bit as frightening as Voldemort’s return. While David Yates doesn’t spend much time building up much new thematic underpinning, his understanding that Umbridge’s actions unwittingly complement Voldemort’s is abundantly clear.
Yates has also come up with a captivating climax. The last act is capped by a battle in the Ministry of Magic between a squad of students, led by Harry, and a group of Death Eaters led by Lucious Malfoy. That leads into a supremely imaginative Dumbledore/Voldemort duel that finally shows off the real range of magic in Rowlings’ universe. The scene is vivid and spectacular, with more power than I’ve seen in a blockbuster this summer. (It’s also superior to anything in the latter Star Wars trilogy, which it vaguely echoes.)
Furthermore, Phoenix handily integrates a large supporting cast into the story. Sirius Black gets more valuable time than he did even in Prisoner of Azkaban. Gary Oldman’s supremely sympathetic turn as Black is the best work he’s done in years. Be impressed or saddened by that as you will. Evanna Lynch, cast here before Neil Gaiman could discover her for Delerium, is appealingly odd as the introverted Luna Lovegood. Even Harry Melling feels more human as Dudley Dursley.
Alan Rickman, meanwhile, continues to slip in a layer of depth here and there through mere glances and facial tics. He makes Snape the most fascinating character in the film for whatever moments he’s on screen.
Flat notes do sound. Love interest Cho Chang, so omnipresent in the film’s first half, is roughly pushed to the background. Yates ill delivers on Harry’s suspicion of her in the story’s second half. I easily understood the basic situation between the two, but still felt as if I was missing a chunk of the story. Order member Nymphadora Tonks seems introduced merely to add eye candy and wait in the wings for the next film. And Hagrid’s giant brother allows only for dull comedy and the film’s most notable dodgy effects while facilitating a single plot point.
(I was momentarily irritated that Helena Bonham Carter’s Belletrix Lastrange came to less, but in retrospect I feel confident that her presence will be fully justified in the next film.)
Despite all the ancillary action, the focus remains on Harry. Daniel Radcliffe’s physical acting here demonstrates an evolution of his skills and he displays an extended dramatic range as well. Goldenberg nimbly leaps through serious and comic scenes, giving us a Potter that is more adult and sober, but not irritatingly self-absorbed, as he often was in Goblet of Fire. Revelations about the propechy and true character of both Harry’s father and Professor Snape probably have much more time in the novel, but are still powerful in brief form here, as Radcliffe makes all the information hit home.
I’ve lost most of the interest I once had in reading the entire series, but this film does something none of the others have — it’s actually made me excited to see what happens next, to the point where I might grab book six to assuage my curiosity before the next film hits. Failing that, I’ll be happy just to watch Order of the Phoneix again, which makes another first for the Potter films.