Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Fifth time’s the same old charm for our young wizard
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Directed by David Yates
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Ralph Fiennes, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
There isn't much point, at this stage of the game, to reviewing anything Harry Potter-related. The books have a more avid fanbase than just about any in the history of literature. The movies have proved to be incredibly popular and as loyal as possible to J.K. Rowling’s source material. Both incarnations, literate and cinematic, have been amazingly consistent over the years. So what, exactly, would be the point of lobbing either deep criticism or lavish praise in their direction?
There are times, though, when the job of a review is not to influence readers to either see a particular product or avoid it like the plague. Sometimes (like now), the purpose is simply to discuss something, to engage in a sort of one-sided “did you notice that?” conversation with people who have already seen it (probably twice already). Consider this, then, a casual, post-film chat regarding the latest Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Despite the occasional grumble that the Harry Potter films limit the imaginations of readers by forcing them to picture specific images, settings and characters, the cinematic adaptations of Rowling’s novels have been of consistently high quality. The scripts, with a few unavoidable truncations, have mirrored the books almost to the letter. The directors—from Chris Columbus to Alfonso Cuarón to Mike Newell—have been a talented lot, demonstrating individual style and flair without reinventing the wheel each outing. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, for example, was saddled with one of the toughest narratives—a transitory tale that served as little more than a bridge between the second and fourth books. Thanks to Cuarón, however, it boasted some of the most indelible imagery of the entire series.
Now comes Order of the Phoenix, the darkest and most complicated thus far in Rowling’s increasingly dark and complicated tale. As a result, the film is a rather glum, dimly lit affair that effectively mirrors the emo attitudes of its now angsty teenage protagonists, but isn’t all that much fun to watch. I won’t say the magic is gone—but after four films and six books, the sense of wide-eyed wonder has faded a bit. The train, the school, the wands, the giant snakes: It’s all starting to feel a bit familiar, year after year. The feeling of grinding toward the inevitable conclusion is beginning to become evident. It’s hard, at this stage, not to feel a bit anxious to just hurry up and get to the big showdown. (At the very least, the film does serve as a much-needed placebo until Rowling’s final chapter hits bookstores this weekend.)
On the plus side, Order of the Phoenix does have one of the most satisfying, most self-contained narratives of the entire series. There’s a nifty tension (none too subtly mirroring the wartime paranoia of the Bush/Blair regimes) in the appropriation of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry by fear-mongering bureaucrats embodied by ultra-conservative sadist Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, delivering an unforgettably hateful performance). Unwilling to admit that evil Lord Voldemort has returned, the Ministry of Magic has clamped down on freedom of the press and is refusing to teach the students at Hogwarts actual, practical spells. Old-fashioned book learning is enough to pass the standardized tests, and that’s all the Ministry cares about in this “No Wizard Left Behind” age.
Fans of the books will, as always, be sad to see what’s been left out. “A lot” is the answer. Thanks to the now jumbo-sized cast, new characters like Tonks and Kreacher as well as old favorites like Malfoy and Hagrid end up with barely a minute or two of screentime. Prior knowledge of the books is probably essential at this point, as the narrative moves at a breakneck, take-no-prisoners, explain-very-little pace.
There are, of course, tiny tweaks from the previous outings (the Dementors look ever-so-slightly different)—but eagle-eyed fanatics are free to discuss these details ad nauseum. Casual viewers may note that new cameraslinger David Yates (a virtually unknown British TV director) doesn’t add much in the way of personal touches. This is the most pedestrian-looking Potter since the first, less lavishly funded outing. But at the end of the day, it’s still a Harry Potter movie. Even if some of us are less impressed than we have been in the past, we’re still watching until the bitter (hopefully not too bitter) end.