Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Review
This review does not contain spoilers for Order of the Phoenix itself, but does for previous films in the series – which the makers assume you have seen in any case.
It’s the summer before his fifth year at Hogwarts, and already Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is in trouble. He has to fight off an attack by Dementors in broad daylight with the aid of his magical abilities – which breaks one of the fundamental rules of Hogwarts. As a result he is expelled before the term even begins. Meanwhile, at the Ministry of Magic, Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) goes to great lengths to deny that Voldemort has returned and brands Harry a liar for claiming that he fought the Dark Lord the year before. And Dumbledore’s headmastership comes into question.
At 780 pages, Order of the Phoenix is by far the longest of the seven novels and it becomes the shortest of the five films so far. As a novel it divides readers: overlong and certainly in need of editing, it also lets Harry become less sympathetic. Still struggling to cope with what he has seen and found out, not to mention the murder of Cedric Diggory by Voldemort (see Goblet of Fire), he spends large parts of the novel being a stroppy teenager and shouting in CAPITAL LETTERS. However, he has to deal with the death of someone closer to him. If you don’t know who that is, I won’t give it away. Given the character’s age, there’s more boy-girl interaction going on – though given the intended audience it doesn’t go further than “snogging” (Rowling’s word) – and Harry has his first kiss.
There’s an argument that the screenplay adaptations of the Potter novels constitute the tough-love restructurings that no-one dares tell Rowling herself to do. Steve Kloves adapted the first four, and he will be back with number six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (due on our screens in November 2008), but he’s absent here. Michael Goldenberg steps in and does an able job of filleting this very long novel into just over two hours of screentime. No doubt book fans will miss details and subplots (such as Harry being banned from Quidditch and Ron becoming the hero of the day), but this rather misses the point. As William Goldman says, screenplays are structure, and given the decision to make two-hour-plus films and not miniseries there is little room to digress.
At one point, Chris Columbus was to direct all seven films. It’s fortunate that he stepped down after two. Although Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets are better than average Columbus – keeping the narrative moving kept his tendency towards over-sentimentality at bay – the Potter series has benefited from the talent of the directors hired. David Yates is less proven as a feature director – his only previous is the little-seen 1998 film The Tichborne Claimant - but has a distinguished track record on television, having been at the helm of The Way We Live Now, State of Play and Sex Traffic amongst others. He does a very able job. As with Mike Newell on the previous film, he doesn’t have the visual flair that Alfonso Cuarón brought to Prisoner of Azkaban, but he does very well with handling a complex narrative that builds and moves. He must have impressed the producers, because he’s signed up to make Half-Blood Prince. Other technical aspects are top notch, including Slawomir Idziak’s dark-hued camerawork and Stuart Craig’s production design. Given that Hogwarts and the world of magic crosshatches with the real world, this is something that the makers have not really capitalised on. (The Dursleys’ house is fantasy suburbia.) This time round, it’s a nice surprise to see Harry and co use the London Underground and fly past the Canary Wharf Tower.
The Potter films aren’t really actors’ pieces, though a large tranche of British Equity has lined up to appear in them, often in roles which are not much more than cameos. Of the newcomers, Imelda Staunton steals the show as Dolores Umbridge, the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, a permanently motherly smile hiding the heart of a sadist. (As with Goblet of Fire, the series is now in 12A territory – and Umbridge’s detention-cum-torture of Harry is one of the reasons why. Parents of very young children beware.) In a rather smaller role, Helena Bonham Carter does a surprising turn as Bellatrix Lestrange. Of the younger actors, Evanna Lynch is ideal casting as Luna Lovegood, as fey and dreamy as she is in the novel.
But as ever the film rests on its three young leads. I rewatched the first four films on DVD before I saw this, and it’s disconcerting to see Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson grow up before your eyes, and grow into their roles. Emma Watson seems the most limited, though to be fair unlike the others we haven’t seen her in any other role yet, and she does ably enough by the role. As anyone who saw him on stage in Equus will testify, Radcliffe has become a more than capable actor.
With Order of the Phoenix the Harry Potter films become darker still, and we can expect more to come in Half-Blood Prince in eighteen months’ time. When most blockbusters are cynical, lazy exercises content to push its audience’s buttons, its good to see that the Potter series is maintaining its level of quality control.