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Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

By Shane Jenkins

July 20, 2007

Good lord, our movie is about to be crushed by a book! A book!

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The Harry Potter in the latest film, The Order of the Phoenix, is a different wizard than the one we've come to know from the earlier installments. Gone is our sweet little Harry in the red and gold scarf. "I'm angry... all the time," he complains, and even Hermione and Ron seem to hang back a little from him. That this is eventually explained away in magic terms does not diminish the subtext - our boy is growing up and it ain't pretty.

Adolescence is kind to few, but the genius of Jo Rowling's series is that it makes literal the perils of teenagerdom. We all felt like we were going to die in junior high, though usually of embarrassment. In Rowling's world, real lives hang in the balance as the forces of good and evil collide, but the everyday concerns of adolescence are given nearly as much weight. Yes, yes, Voldemort has returned, but is Harry going to kiss Cho? Are Ron and Hermione secretly in love? And what about poor Ginny Weasley? Aaaaah! Potions aren't the only things bubbling up at Hogwarts this time around.

Speaking of Hogwarts, British TV director David Yates doesn't quite seem to be under the magic spell of the institution as much as the previous filmmakers. For the first time in the series, Hogwarts feels dingy and dangerous. The enchanted staircases and portraits are barely glimpsed, and I don't remember seeing the resident ghosts wafting through the halls. Even an impromptu display of joyous fireworks is cut short by tragedy. The unthinkable has happened - Hogwarts has turned into your terrible middle school. I might be suffering from a mild case of schadenfreude, but I like this new dreadful Hogwarts. There's no time to stop and smell the vomit-flavored jellybeans when you're fighting for your life.

The Order of the Phoenix finds Harry and headmaster Albus Dumbledore becoming pariahs in the magical world. Nobody is willing to believe that Voldemort has made his comeback, and The Daily Prophet, the wizard version of Star Magazine/Fox News, has launched a successful campaign to discredit Harry and Dumbledore's version of the events of the last movie. The clueless and reactionary Ministry of Magic assigns one of its own, Dolores Umbridge, to be the new Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor. She dresses in pink Jackie O. type outfits, and has plates with mewing kittens on her office wall. She's very clearly evil, and sort of reminiscent of Joan Cusack's pastel gold-digger in Addams Family Values. With the Ministry's backing, she gains more and more power and enacts more and more rules limiting the freedoms of the students, ostensibly for their own safety. Hmm. This sounds a little familiar.




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In fact, this is the most overtly political of the Potter movies, and there was a danger that it could have ended up as dreary as one of those Star Wars prequels. But screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, taking over for Steve Kloves, who scripted all of the previous installments, chose carefully what to include and what to keep out, and he's managed to turn the most overstuffed book of the series into the tightest film. There's less action, at least until the finale, but the interpersonal dynamics are rewarding enough for this to dodge the mantle of the "filler chapter."

Yates has the fortune of working with a top-flight cast of British vets, but the standout in this film is Imelda Staunton as Umbridge. She gets more screen time than any other adult, and sure makes the most of it. There's a scene where a student is given a pen with no ink, and her reaction as the scene plays out its horrible conclusion is absolutely chilling. Umbridge is a one-note character, but Staunton manages to transcend that and deliver a fully-fleshed out monster.

With the emphasis on Harry's internal struggle, coupled with the shorter-than-usual running time, some of the favorite characters from the other movies get the short end of the (broom) stick here. Hagrid and Dumbledore are noticeably absent for most of the film, and offer barely a line apiece to explain their disappearances. Ron and Hermione spend a good deal of the movie exchanging worried glances about Harry. Emma Thompson and Julie Walters basically have cameos, and aside from one virtuoso scene with Staunton, even the great Maggie Smith is pushed into the background.

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Make no mistake -- Order of the Phoenix is The Harry Show all the way.

Fortunately, for maybe the first time in the series, Daniel Radcliffe is up to the task. Yates clearly spent time with the actors, and the performances are better than ever (with the possible exception of Emma Watson, who seems to be developing some unfortunate actor-y mannerisms). Radcliffe has never been the most naturalistic actor; in the earlier installments you could almost see the director coaching him from the sidelines. But being around these great thespians seems to have finally paid off. He even manages to share a few scenes with that master of intensity, Gary Oldman, and not get blown off the screen. This movie, much more so than the others, rests on his shoulders, and part of the exhilaration here is seeing him finally bloom into a real actor.

And this feels like a real movie too, not just a cash-generating machine (which, of course, is precisely what it is). Alfonso Cuaron's The Prisoner of Azkaban is still my favorite of these movies so far, with its nice balance of whimsy and darkness. Order of the Phoenix may be a little harder to love, mostly due to the grim nature of the source material, but it has its rewards. The final battle is the best set piece in the series yet. The opening scene with the Dementors is wonderfully shot and scary. And the glimpse of Snape's own lousy childhood is a welcome bit of backstory. I would call Order of the Phoenix the second best of the series, and, while I would like to have seen Cuaron's take on one of these later chapters, I look forward to Yates's work in next fall's Half-Blood Prince. He's laid the groundwork for something great.


     


 
 

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