Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Reviewed by Patrick Z. McGavin

Dark and malevolent, like the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, tinged with sharp satirical thrusts, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is designed like a waking nightmare. Outfitted with a new director, screenwriter and composer, the newest installation of the J.K. Rowling created franchise has a speed and a jaunty, even terrifying forward momentum.

It is not always to the films advantage, and the resulting work sometimes sacrifices character development and suffers a corresponding near absence of the bit player that enlivened some of the previous movies. This is the first theatrical feature of British director David Yates, a filmmaker whose previous credits were mostly BBC television dramas. Rowlings book, the fifth of seven, runs just under 900 pages. Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg have necessarily compressed and significantly streamlined the material.

Yates made two brilliant decisions, hiring the brilliant Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak and the excellent production designer Stuart Craig. Idziak photographed some of Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowskis most impressionistic and subjective work, including A Short Film about Killing, The Double Life of Veronique and Blue. Craig has worked on the four previous entries of the Potter cycle, and his involvement guarantees a certain visual consistency.

Order of the Phoenix is further evidence that the series is plainly auteur (and critic) proof. Its still a great deal of fun to write about. One might begrudge Rowling her insane wealth and great fortune; I applaud anybody with the smarts, nerve and brains to engender entire generations of kids to yield their video games and take up reading, even if it only proves temporary. Rowlings great gift is to find an alternately soothing, frightening emotional simulacrum of childhood and adolescence played out as a series of daring games and riffs on identity and youthful competence.

Chris Columbus, the director of the first two features, brought little personality or distinctive sensibility, his flat rendering producing little edge or excitement to the origins of the characters and little imagination to the fantastically dense and beguiling storytelling. The series took a promising upward turn with the third installment (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), made by the excellent Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was the first directed by an Englishman, the underrated stylist Mike Newell.

I am angry all the time, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) says. Haunted by nightmares and his complicity in the death of a classmate, Harry is increasingly unmoored emotionally, unable to understand or control the spasms of guilt and acute sense of loss. Yates makes it clear from the opening scene set in a sterile English countryside with Harry introduced being taunted by his bullying cousin and his mates, that Order of the Phoenix, is a darker, more threatening iteration than its predecessors. The action shifted to an underground platform, Harry brilliantly, resourcefully fends off an attack of two Dementors.

Rather than having his heroism and skill honored, Harry is threatened with expulsion from Hogwarts. He is summoned for a kind of Stalinist show trial before the increasingly Orwellian Ministry of Magic. His crimes are allegedly illegally employed his trade in the presence of a civilian. Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) intercedes on his behalf, convinced of Harrys belief that Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is waged in a particularly vicious brand of mind control, persuasion and propaganda.

The courtroom crystallizes the conflict of Order of the Phoenix, the struggle of Harrys pragmatism and individual acceptance of action and resolution increasingly thwarted by the rigid institutional order embodied by Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton). Shes a classic force of resistance, a humorless scold who quickly achieves prominence at Hogwarts, consolidating her power and ridding herself of all rivals.

The story pivots on the clash of styles and wills. Dolores decisively moves to eliminate most personal freedoms, outlawing the playing of music, regulating all manner of student social conduct and decreeing a sudden halt to teaching the schools niche curriculum, magic and its beguiling forms of self-realization. Harry suddenly takes on the mantle of the French Resistance leader during the German occupation.

He imports a special band of allies to subvert this absurdist functionary. He fronts an underground force, self-titled Dumbledores Army, colluding with the funny, loyal Ron (Rupert Grint), the dashing, beautiful Hermione (Emma Watson) and the luminous, beguiling Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) to refine and develop their skills. Rowling cannily synthesizes a great deal of English pop art in her work, and her clear inspiration here is Lindsay Andersons If., a sharp, trenchant story of boarding school classmates violently rebelling against the rigid fascist social order.

At some point Yates and Goldenberg eliminate the novels social panorama and use the time and energy to allow their terrific cast to work ply their special trade. Not all actors are given the same accord. Like the other directors, Yates must apportion time between his central performers and the terrific gallery of supporting players, most of them English actors of the first rank. Unfortunately Order of the Phoenix is not capable of accommodating every actor. David Thewlis and Emma Thompson are given particularly short shrift. The wonderful Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, excellent as the impervious Mad-Eye Moody, is also too infrequently seen and observed.

The actors endow the fantastic and the surreal a human edge, a sense of pretentious, envy, ambition and wounded recovered memory. As Professor Snape, Alan Rickman is noxiously funny as a man embittered by the still painful cruelty visited on him by Harrys father. The actors are particularly good at physical movements, using their bodies as kind of mimes, whether it is the size and girth of Richard Griffiths or the Lear-like rage and manner of Gambons Dumbledore.

Like The Empire Strikes Back, this fifth installment most forcefully registers as an Oedipal conflict. In slyly merging tones that shift between the absurdist, colorful and terrifying, Yates sets an appropriate register of dread and anticipation that climaxes with the showdown between Harry and Voldemort. In order for the confrontation to work, you need a particularly wrathful villain. Fiennes is more than compelling. It is sometimes necessary to remember that he made his first impression as a Nazi in Steven Spielbergs Schindlers List. Hes not just nasty and vengeful; he has a weight, the malignant solidity of a monster.

Fundamentally, one might argue all of Western literature is about the imposition of order. In the end, the movie achieves a somewhat hopeful and optimistic tone that is not mitigated by the darker threads and current. A movie like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is by its nature one rued by compromise. If the movie ends somewhat predictably, there remain currents of loss and grief that essentially shape the psychological profile of the hero. It is necessary, I think, to see the works not individually or in isolation though as part of a connected series.

With the imminent publication of the seventh and final book of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, the conclusion is near. The Order of the Phoenix does not achieve the dizzying heights of its two predecessors. It is the needed transitional work to the uncertainty and anxiousness of an adolescence left

Cast

Harry Potter – Daniel Radcliffe
Ron Weasley – Rupert Grint
Hermione Granger – Emma Watson
Bellatrix Lestrange – Helena Bonham Carter
Rubeus Hagrid – Robbie Coltrane
Lord Voldemort – Ralph Fiennes
Albus Dumbledore – Michael Gambon
Alastor 'Mad'Eye' Moody – Brendan Gleeson
Vernon Dursley – Richard Griffiths
Lucius Malfoy – Jason Isaacs
Sirius Black – Gary Oldman
Severus Snape – Alan Rickman
Petunia Dursley – Fiona Shaw
Minerva McGonagall – Maggie Smith
Dolores Umbridge – Imelda Staunton
Remus Lupin – David Thewlis
Sybil Trelawney – Emma Thompson
Argus Filch – David Bradley
Filius Flitwick – Warwick Davis
Draco Malfoy – Tom Felton
Cornelius Fudge – Robert Hardy
Mrs. Weasley – Julie Walters
Arthur Weasley – Mark Williams
Cho Chang – Katie Leung
Neville Longbottom – Matthew Lewis
Luna Lovegood – Evanna Lynch

Credits

A Warner Bros. release of a Heyday Films production. Produced by David Heyman, David Barron. Executive producer, Lionel Wigram. Co-producer, John Trehy. Directed by David Yates. Screenplay, Michael Goldenberg, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling.
Camera (Technicolor, JDC widescreen), Slawomir Idziak; editor, Mark Day; music, Nicholas Hooper; production designer, Stuart Craig; supervising art director, Neil Lamont; senior art director, Andrew Ackland-Snow; art directors, Mark Bartholomew, Alastair Bullock, Martin Schadler, Gary Tomkins, Alex Walker; set decorator, Stephenie McMillan; costume designer, Jany Temime; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Stuart Wilson; supervising sound editor, James Mather; sound designer, Andy Kennedy; co-sound designer, James Boyle; re-recording mixers, Mike Prestwood Smith, Mark Taylor, Doug Cooper; visual effects supervisor, Tim Burke; special effects supervisor, John Richardson; special visual effects and animation, Industrial Light & Magic; visual effects, the Moving Picture Co., Framestore-CFC, Rising Sun Picture, Cinesite (Europe), Baseblack, Machine Effects.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 139 Minutes.