Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Posted on July 14, 2007


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The fifth Harry Potter novel makes an extremely satisfying transition to the screen.

JULY 15, 2007 – AFTER THE turgid literal-mindedness of the first two Harry Potter movies, where the point seemed merely to transfer a laundry list of narrative detail from page to screen, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, quite frankly, came as a bit of a shock. Here we were before this third outing, resigned to more of the same, but instead – thanks to the magician behind the scenes known as Alfonso Cuarón – we got ourselves a truly wondrous adaptation, one where even the Whomping Willow was imbued with a couple of shades of personality. (It’s hard not to smile seeing this supremely eccentric tree stretch itself lazily and, in the manner of a dog stepping out from a wash, shake off from its branches the scraps of the current season – whether dry leaves in autumn or snow in winter.) After two-plus hours of such non-stop invention, it was no surprise that the end credits appeared on the Marauder’s Map – after a voiceover intoning, “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good” – for Cuarón, like the fictional creators of the Map, broke all the rules dictated by the earlier, and far more successful, Potter films and created a few of his own, the first being that finding a visual equivalent for the themes and the emotions was far more important than being slave to the plot points.

As JK Rowling wrote it, Harry’s (Daniel Radcliffe) interactions with the sympathetic Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) occurred mainly inside the classrooms of Hogwarts, but the way Cuarón saw it, the two also met by the lake on the castle grounds on a clear, sunny day – and as their conversation tapers off, Hedwig, the snow-white owl by Harry’s side, takes flight and soars towards Hogwarts under a tranquil sky that is soon speckled with snowflakes; a moment later, as Hedwig flies off towards the owlery, we see the ice-frosted structure that is Hogwarts in winter. A change of director for the next film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, couldn’t bring us a single shot as atmospheric as this change of seasons. In fact, Mike Newell had no time for atmosphere, being in such a hurry to get to the end that he took us all the way to the venue of the Quidditch World Cup Finals and whisked us away without the teeniest glimpse of the actual game. You got the feeling that Newell was ordered to construct the movie like a Pensieve, populating it with the silvery, vaporous strands of our memories from the book so that we would dip our heads in and get out after experiencing an instant visual replay of the highlights, even if nothing was detailed to any level of satisfaction.

The marvel of the fifth film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is that its director, David Yates, takes his cues from both Cuarón and Newell, so we get a movie that plays like one long montage of our recollections from the book – in other words, this one too is modelled after a Pensieve, racing through the plot, and stopping to breathe only at a few, key moments, like the one between Harry and his godfather Sirius Black (a very touching Gary Oldman) – but it’s also brave enough to depart from Rowling’s prose to ensure a piece of cinema first, an adaptation only later. As such, Order of the Phoenix isn’t going to satisfy every fan of the book. I can tick off, right away, a few things I wasn’t especially happy about – the fact, for instance, that the Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) still comes across, as in the earlier movies, like an afterthought in the concluding portions; he’s hardly the constantly lurking shadow of menace he’s meant to be. And in the theatre I saw the film in, there were frequent grumbles – loud grumbles; forget Dumbledore’s Army, it’s Harry Potter who appears to have the bigger battalion of vociferous supporters – when it was Neville Longbottom (and not Dobby, the house-elf) who brought Harry’s attention to The Room of Requirement, or when Professor Snape’s (Alan Rickman, marvellously slimy as ever) Occlumency lessons occur much earlier than Rowling intended, or when the giant Grawp turned out more cuddly than scary.

But these decisions – along with the wonderful visual translations of the intent of some of the prose, like when a paper bird that a student has magicked up in class, and which is soaring over the oohs and the aahs of the others, is mercilessly burnt to a crisp by a wave of Professor Dolores Umbridge’s (Imelda Staunton) wand – make Order of the Phoenix a sturdy companion piece to the book. It exists comfortably on its own in a parallel dimension – at once complement and contrast – as proof of what happens when two gifted tellers choose to tell the same tale, which goes something like this: Very few believe Harry and Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) when they claim that Voldemort is back, and it keeps getting worse. Harry is attacked by Dementors (the terrifying wraiths that guard the wizard prison of Azkaban) right by his home. He is unfairly tried by a wizard court for practicing magic in front of Muggles. He is angry that no one understands what he is going through after the events in Goblet of Fire (which resulted in the death of fellow-student Cedric Diggory). Dumbledore won’t talk to him any more, and, worst of all, Hogwarts is hijacked by the Big Brotherly (Big Sisterly?) Umbridge, whose borderline-psychotic attempts to thwart Harry make Voldemort look like a teddy bear in comparison. Oh, and did I mention that Harry is haunted by dreams of Voldemort, which have something to do with a prophecy that the latter wants retrieved?

Just reading this synopsis over made me realise that no one new to the Potter universe is going to be any clearer about the goings on – but even for newbies, there’s enough visual wow to keep you entertained, beginning with the waxy seal on an envelope that transforms into a pair of lips that enunciate the contents of the letter inside. Even the special effects that didn’t quite work in the earlier movies look spectacular in Order of the Phoenix. In Goblet of Fire, Sirius Black’s face-in-the-fireplace came off like a mess of fiery sludge, but here, it crackles with life; Black’s features are animated by the dancing flames, and we get a glimpse of the character that we know from the books, the man who’s never more alive than when flirting with danger. (Popping up in a fireplace in a common room used by scores of students isn’t exactly the safest of things to do for someone thought to be an escaped murderer, with a heavy price still on his head.) Yates is a wizard at such split-second characterisation, which is a particularly useful gift in a film with a cast this sprawling. You may not get this if you haven’t read the book, but the essence of the witch Nymphadora Tonks (Natalia Tena) is brought out when she is referred to by the first name that she loathes; her hair instantly turns red, as if channelling her anger.

The others make their presence felt even if many of the actors barely have a couple of lines of dialogue. David Thewlis registers an aching moment of grief towards the end, when his Lupin witnesses the tragic fate that befalls a beloved friend. Emma Watson gets one great scene when she’s picked up like a plaything by Grawp and she asks – no, orders – him to unhand her. (It does make sense that even a giant would be a bit scared of Watson’s Hermione Granger.) Rupert Grint (who plays Ron Weasley) is mostly in the shadows, though he does reap the benefit of the single most wicked editorial decision in the film, when we cut from a baby thestral – a kind of winged horse – gnawing at a bloody piece of red meat to Ron chomping on a largish link of sausage. Evanna Lynch, as the flaky Luna Lovegood, is just as you imagined her from the book, getting her fifteen seconds of fame when she is attacked by a Death Eater, and yet – bloody mouth and all – manages a very effective counter-curse. And Staunton is simply phenomenal, colouring her Dolores Umbridge as much with the hunger for power of a ruthless go-getter as the unctuous self-righteousness of a born-again evangelist. (“You know deep down you deserve to be punished,” she coos to Harry, after setting him a particularly nasty task for detention.)

But Order of the Phoenix, ultimately, belongs to its heroes – two of whom are the twins Fred and George Weasley. We’re shown that Umbridge imposes one Educational Decree after another on the school, till an entire wall appears covered with these notices – Argus Filch, the non-magical caretaker, suffers hilariously when he’s forced to use a huge stepladder to hang up the latest announcement – and when the twins decide they’ve had enough and make their escape, it’s not until after their fireworks have shattered this wall of decrees. It’s an inspired touch – very different from the book – hinting at Hogwarts’ impending freedom from Umbridge. As for Radcliffe, I still can’t say if he’s any good as an actor – but the way Yates stages his scenes, he certainly does come across as one. Early on, we sense Harry’s increasing distance from the others as a letter that he’s written to his godfather is read out over the image of Hedwig taking flight with it; the next instant, we see Harry walking all by himself, his loneliness accentuated by an overhead shot that shows no other soul for miles around. I also loved that they had Cedric Diggory’s picture in The Room of Requirement (where Harry conducts his secret classes in Defence Against the Dark Arts, in flagrant defiance of one of Umbridge’s decrees), a conceit that pays off in spades, later, when Harry kisses Cho Chang (Katie Leung) in the same room. (How much more awkward that Harry’s first kiss comes about in the presence – even if only in a photograph – of Cho’s ex-boyfriend!) With the inspired Yates guiding him, Radcliffe details his most convincing Harry Potter yet – never more so than when he exclaims, after discovering The Room of Requirement, “It’s brilliant! It’s as if Hogwarts wants us to fight back.” It’s a line written especially for the film, and you wonder why Rowling never thought of it – especially since this is the book where she firmly establishes her hero as a soldier on the side of goodness.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: English