the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is generally regarded as fans’ least favorite book, so it was a foregone conclusion that whomever was appointed to helm the film version was going to have an uphill battle before them, especially given the fact that the high water mark of the series had already been set by Alfonzo Cuarón’s magisterial The Prisoner of Azkaban. As if thumbing their noses at the stakes, the producers went outside Hollywood and settled on an untested and untried team of British television craftsmen. Things were not looking good. But Warner Bros. was obviously on to something the rest of us could not see — though it may be blasphemous to say so, this is one movie that is actually superior to the book!

While devotees of the series will finally discover how it all ends in just a few weeks with the arrival of the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s colossal series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” in this installment Harry and Co. are anything but in on the dénouement. When we last saw Harry (Daniel Radcliff), his friend Cedric Diggory had just been killed by the newly reanimated Voldemort and Harry had barely escaped with his own life. The Order of the Phoenix opens as each of the other films have — Harry is on summer break, disconnected from the magical world and his friends at Hogwarts and forced to live with his insipid Aunt and Uncle Dursley. But he discovers soon enough that the magical world is anything but disconnected from him when, after fending off a Dementor attack in broad daylight and in full view of Muggles, he is accused of illegal use of magic and put before an inquisition intent on sentencing him to Azkaban prison.

Although he is ultimately vindicated, Harry comes to realize that most of the wizarding world does not believe his story about You-Know-Who’s return, and many among them, including the Ministry of Magic, are actively trying to discredit him. Things only go from bad to worst when, back at school, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), one of the judges from his trial, is appointed as the new Dark Arts teacher. Placed there to keep an eye on things, it isn’t long before the black wolf in pink sheep’s clothing begins taking over the school, instituting draconian rules and turning it into a medieval police state.

As Harry continues to suffer from horrifying visions, he is convinced by his fellow students to teach his own Dark Arts class in secret — “Dumbledore’s Army” they call themselves — to ensure the students will be ready to defend themselves should the need arise. And it’s a good thing too, as they will soon find themselves face the face with Voldemort and his Death Eaters, setting in motion a chain of events that will once again introduce tragedy into young Harry’s life.

The Order of the Phoenix is adapted from the longest novel in Rowling’s series (nearly 900 pages), but has been elegantly streamlined into the shortest of the films, clocking in at just over two hours. A marvel of compression, it moves briskly yet unhurriedly.

Just as Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) greet Harry with exuberant hugs after a long summer apart, so too we realize how much we’ve missed our old friends. But this isn’t child’s play anymore. Even a cursory glance at our heroes reveals the obvious — these are not the children who first meandered into Hogwarts all those years ago, baby-faced and bewildered. These are nearly adults, far more confident in their own skins. They don’t simply look like adults, they sound like them too, forced to grow up sooner than they ever wanted and discovering that with adulthood comes responsibilities and consequences of which childhood cannot even conceive. (It also comes with unexpected bliss, such as in Harry’s first kiss!)

There is no doubt that the films continue to get darker. The Order of the Phoenix is the darkest one yet. Yet those wishing the films would stay light and uncomplicated are ignoring the natural progression of things — both dramatically and realistically. While other boys are facing down puberty, Harry must confront the greatest evil the world has ever known. As the series races to its inevitable conclusion, Harry must fight not just for his life, but for his very soul, and perhaps ours as well. And yes, while some of the joy or magic, if you will, has been muted, the wonder and power is very much alive and well.

One of the reasons this novel isn’t as well liked as the others, is due to the character of Harry himself. His kvetching, self-centeredness and above all, fits of anger, stand in stark contrast to the cherubic child in the first installments. Harry is an irate and unlikable hero here too, barking in impatience and ill temper at those who love and care about him the most. It takes some effort to recall why he is so unsettled and be willing to walk this tormented road along side him.

As with Jane Austen adaptations, the Potter films seem to keep the majority of British actors gainfully employed. While all our familiar faces, from students to professors, return (Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson), several new characters also enter the fray. Chief among them is the superb Imelda Staunton as Umbridge, a malicious, order-obsessed control freak who masks her true nature in pastels, giggles and kittens. Newcomer Evanna Lynch brings the perfect sense of peculiarity and charm to student Luna Lovegood. Helena Bonham Carter makes her debut as Sirius Black’s twisted cousin, Bellatrix Lestrange. But it is Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) himself, a token player up to now, who is given the most screen time. He and Harry bond in a way that is part mentor and student, part father and son. SPOLIER ALERT: Of course, their deepening friendship will be shattered, but while Black’s demise is far more ambiguous than in the book, the lines foreshadowing his return are much more overt.

Director David Yates is not about unnecessary sound and fury. Though there are plenty of rousing action sequences and CG laden effects, The Order of the Phoenix does not overwhelm the senses like some of the past films have come close to doing. Where there is need of bombast, however, Phoenix delivers the goods. The penultimate scene, in which we are treated to a climactic wizard battle, is part fencing, part urban firefight, and is positioned amongst one of the series’ most extraordinary sets. A confrontation between Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is reminiscent of the original Star Wars when Obi-Wan faced off against Darth Vader. The magic in Phoenix is imagined as wispy tendrils and filigreed, incandescent smoke. But when these titans clash, their battle is purely elemental — fire, water and earth — their wands spewing something more akin to molten lava than pure energy. It is awe-inspiring to behold.

It must be said that though some films in the series have certainly been better than others, none have crashed and burned. Each one has maintained a remarkable consistency of tone, spirit and faithfulness to the source material despite diverse filmmaking teams. While it could be said that the plot of The Order of the Phoenix is remarkably similar and follows predictable, repeatable touchstones to the stories that have gone before it, it is nevertheless run through with the dark tributary of an edgy and knotty political thriller, rife with conspiratorial meetings and bureaucratic skullduggery. But more than that, it is a powerful and poignant coming-of-age story, adeptly and thrillingly told.

Finally, a summer blockbuster worthy of the name.


Anonymous Christopher said...


Saw Harry on Friday (alas, the IMAX was sold out). As a devote of the
series (read each 20+ times during my PhD and have sketched out three
possible books), let me tell you - you nailed it. It is better than
book, and in fact was such a compelling movie that Tanya (my wife) was
of breath at the end. Wonderful use of the white and black, dark and
imagery. The film communicates what I have been telling people for
years -
if you loved LOTR and Narnia books,you will love the Harry Books,
need to see the films. It is the best film of the series (except for
possibly the first, because the first is so innocent (as is harry)and
very magical, like the original Willy wonka).

Anyways,keep up the great work,

9:38 AM  

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