When the word "Muggle" (definition: a person without magical powers) made it into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2003, the cultural influence of Harry Potter became incontrovertible; and what better way to cash in on this cultural phenomenon than to make a series of flashy, disjointed movies that not only fail to encompass the novels they unwisely sought to capture, but often fail as films as well. Fortunately, the fifth movie in this booming franchise, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is different. It's a genuinely good film. Not that any of the past Potters has been particularly atrocious, but all of the things that routinely tainted them (scanty plot development, awkward child actors, and heavy, corresponding doses of syrupy-sweetness and cheese) are adamantly absent from Order of the Phoenix. The other four Potter movies are varying degrees of okay; this is the first to feel like a real film instead of a brand name.
Like its predecessors, Order of the Phoenix is heavily plot-driven. Harry and his magic-savvy sidekicks, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, head back to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for what looks like being their most miserable year yet. At the end of film four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), Harry fought and escaped from a newly-risen Lord Voldemort and watched him kill a fellow student. Now, despite extensive evidence to the contrary, the Ministry of Magic are staunchly refusing to believe that Lord Voldemort has returned, focusing their energies instead on suppressing the truth (which involves publicly painting Harry as a lying criminal) and ruling Hogwarts with an iron fist. When a despotic Ministry official appoints herself "High Inquisitor" at Hogwarts, it's up to Harry to rally his classmates, secretly teaching them defensive spells and jinxes. Likewise, outside of Hogwarts, Dumbledore has re-established the Order of the Phoenix, a league of anti-Voldemort witches and wizards which includes several well-known characters, such as Harry's godfather, Sirius Black. Not to be left out, Voldemort goes into recruiting mode as well, gathering his followers, the Death Eaters, in preparation for finally killing that Potter kid. The added complication in this scenario is that an unintentional bond has been steadily developing between Harry and the Dark Lord throughout Harry's teenaged years, occasionally allowing each to view the other's thoughts. As the film unfolds, the nature of this connection is finally revealed, and it could be Harry and the Order's undoing, or their greatest weapon against a seemingly indestructible sorcerer.
Contrasts—some stark and some subtle—exist in nearly every relationship and scene in Order of the Phoenix, uniting and illuminating a very plot-packed two hours and eighteen minutes. Director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenburg use duality as a connecting thematic influence throughout the film, with Harry versus Voldemort as the most obvious example. As a result, an enormous number of characters, subplots, and relationships are given coherence in what could have otherwise been a very jumbled and jarring experience. The dichotomy between past and present is examined, for example, through the poignant relationship between Harry and Sirius Black, which intensifies in this film: as Harry yearns for a new future with the closest thing he has to a father-figure, his godfather remains mired in a dark past, unable to undo the damage that twelve years in prison and a lifetime of tragedy have done to his mind. The contrast between the world of fantasy (represented by the Wizarding world) and the world of reality (represented by the "Muggle" world), is a constant source of enjoyment in the Potter novels and films, and this movie puts its own spin on this duality; I particularly liked the addition of having the Order of the Phoenix fly past the British Houses of Parliament on broomsticks. The unabashed darkness of this film is impressive, but what truly makes this darkness so delicious is the corresponding levity that permeates the movie: humour, innocence, and joy give depth and variation to the film without depreciating the intensity of very dark situations. Visually, textually, and thematically, the classic fantasy trope of good/light versus evil/darkness is realised, lending a level of substance and understanding to what could have been a big pile of unconnected action sequences and Americanized one-liners.
The acting in these films, predictably, improves with each installment and Order of the Phoenix is no exception. Emma Watson pulls off a convincing, albeit occasionally awkward Hermione Granger, and Rupert Grint uses his relatively few lines as Ron Weasley to his advantage, but it's the title character, played by Daniel Radcliffe, who really raises the quality of this film. For those who found Harry's constant mood-swings, temper tantrums, and capitalized verbal attacks throughout the fifth novel rather trying, this movie-Harry will be a welcome deviation; Daniel Radcliffe's understated frustration invites empathy rather than irritation. Radcliffe is a pleasure to watch, handling his scenes with surprising confidence and subtlety; his scenes with Gary Oldman (as Sirius Black) are particularly well-done. The teenaged actors in Order of the Phoenix are supported by the usual dazzling array of British legends befitting a Potter movie. Imelda Staunton shines as the sweetly sadistic Hogwarts High Inquisitor, Dolores Umbridge, and her two scenes with the equally impressive Dame Maggie Smith (as Professor Minerva McGonagall) are absolute gems. Helena Bonham Carter both fascinates and disturbs as the twisted Death Eater, Bellatrix Lestrange, and Ralph Fiennes outdoes his genuinely terrifying performance in the fourth film, despite having fewer lines this time around.
Order of the Phoenix also manages to successfully manoeuvre around the obstacles that often plague adaptations. It seems that many fantasy films adapted from novels try to be the books they can never be by simply mentioning everything; and they quickly get bogged down in hard-to-remember, similar-sounding names (Éomer, meet Éowyn, meet Éothain, etc.), or complicated details of an alternate universe that cause the whole theatre—including those who have read the novel—to go, "Huh?" While the Harry Potter novels are chock-full of these kinds of delightful details, the filmmakers of Order of the Phoenix wisely avoid straying from main characters and events. The plot, while heavily invested in past events, won't be incomprehensible to a non-Harry Potter fan. I appreciated the fact that the filmmakers were willing to give their audience a little credit, expecting the viewer to remember (or deduce) occasional references from earlier in the film (or other films), rather than obtrusively halting to explain fairly obvious plot points. That said, although Order of the Phoenix doesn't pander to its audience, it doesn't demand a lot either, and that will likely appeal to the people who haven't succumbed to the Harry Potter craze (well, they must exist somewhere, right?).
While I had my usual trepidation regarding how this film would interpret the novel, the fact is that films cannot—and should not—be bound by the novels they stem from; this installment in the series is especially refreshing because it seems to embrace that realization more than any of the other four films, and I found myself truly enjoying the revamped and/or original material that Order of the Phoenix contained. Let minor characters and sub-plots take a backseat for now, and enjoy the surround sound and extended flying-on-various creatures/broomsticks sequences: in short, sit back and enjoy the difference between the film and novel media. While the sprawling scope of the books can encompass all those favourite lines and moments, the two-hour space of a film is perfect for bringing the focus onto what is theatrically and visually appealing about Order of the Phoenix. I did have some small issues with special effects in this film. While certain scenes will make your mouth drop open they're so visually stunning, others will leave the experienced movie-goer cringing in their seat. I'd rather not dwell on these amateur anomalies, but suffice to say that there is no excuse for a film with this big a budget to have such cartoonish-looking CG characters (the talking envelope Harry receives from the Ministry of Magic is especially gruesome). Aside from these occasional imperfections, however, this movie is a cinematic success, and I was thrilled to discover that David Yates will be returning as director for the sixth Potter film as well. Ultimately, Order of the Phoenix does the essentials you expect from a fantasy film, but it does them really, really well.
Catie Ash lives in the US.
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