It’s a sad irony that as the books in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series have grown more complex, the movies inspired by those books are becoming gradually less so. For this and several other reasons, the fourth film in the series, 2005’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, still stands as the best film so far because it happened to land at the pleasing confluence of plotlines that were accelerated on the page but truncated on the screen: While necessarily omitting some of the finer details of the novel, the movie managed to retain both the spirit and structure of the book while also standing on its own as an accomplished film. And though Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is by no means the weakest film in the series — those honors fall squarely on the shoulders of the second film, which is nigh unwatchable — it has regretfully slid past the point of skilled adaptation and become instead a breathless recapitulation of as many of the book’s events as screenwriter Michael Goldenberg and director David Yates can pack into 138 choppy minutes. There are still many good moments, though, and between all the harried exposition and frantic bustling about from one brief scene to the next, Harry manages to hit puberty, deepen his friendships, contemplate his destiny, and develop a personality. But the jewels here are scattered thinly among the rocks, and while devoted fans of the series are likely just to be jazzed about seeing their beloved characters on the big screen again, anyone unfamiliar with the books’ inner workings may be hard-pressed to follow what’s going on.
Each successive entry in the series has gotten darker, and Order of the Phoenix wastes no time on pleasantries, diving through the black sky to find Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) idly killing time in a park on summer vacation, bullied by his cousin, Dudley (Harry Melling), when a pair of ghostly Dementors attack them and attempt to siphon off their life force. (Don’t ask.) Harry saves them both with the aide of his magic wand, an act that gets him briefly expelled before Dumbledore intervenes at Harry’s disciplinary hearing and has him reinstated. Rowling’s intention in the series of events was to highlight Harry’s solitude and increased willingness to break the rules in certain circumstances, as well as to show how overreaching the government of the underground wizarding society has become. But Yates can only hit the highlights, and so while Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) used to be a political figurehead succumbing to the paranoia of his office, he here comes off as merely a strong nuisance. Harry’s expulsion was a radical (albeit temporary) upset in Rowling’s typically rote stories, which always begin and end with the school year, but what in the book was a confusing and drawn-out process that mirrored the emotional changes of the hero is now just a blip on the way to bigger and better things.
In fact, the strongest parts of the film are those that focus on Harry’s emotional development, as he enters the dog days of being a teenager, complete with sullen outbursts and a propensity toward anger. Like everyone else his age, Harry is beginning to question what he views as the holy unfairness that’s been visited upon him that’s surely greater than anyone has ever suffered before; teens are not big-picture people. Harry’s desire to fight back against the world that’s attacking him and the adults he perceives as betraying him becomes the story’s emotional through-line, hidden though it is among a narrative that rarely takes a moment to rest and develop the characters. The titular Order of the Phoenix refers to the secret group of wizards who have banded together to fight back against the Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), among them Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a caring mentor who’s given far too little screen time. When Harry returns to Hogwarts, he finds that the Ministry has installed one of Fudge’s cronies, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher in an effort to persuade the students that there is, in fact, no Dark Lord to worry about. Umbridge is the perfect late-model Potter villain, the kind of sweetly psychotic teacher every student faces at one point in their career, but just over the edge enough to remain fictional. Umbridge’s slow accrual of power and habit of torturing her students is a dark turn for the series; for the first time, the school that was Harry’s sanctuary from everything else is being used against him, and it drives him to create his own band of students and train them in the kind of defensive magic that the grown-ups are refusing to share.
In all honesty, though, I’m having a terrible time trying to do justice to even a summary of the plot, since it’s fairly complex and is so abbreviated that much of the movie feels like the trailer for a much longer and more thorough film. Goldenberg was saddled with trimming several hundred pages into two hours of screen time, and while he does an admirable job at retaining much of the book’s story, ultimately he tries to cram in too much. The scenes where Harry and the other students are training themselves in magical attacks are wonderful, full of light and wonder and the kind of subtle chemistry between the characters that’s taken years to generate on screen, but I always found myself wishing they could last just a bit longer. Harry’s best friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), are flirting with the idea of flirting, but their interactions are often cruelly underplayed, as if Goldenberg and Yates decided to settle for showing the briefest scenes possible in hopes that merely having the characters on screen would communicate the depths of their burgeoning relationships. But it all happens so fast, too fast for any but the most ardent fan to feel satisfied with the short shrift given to character development, which is a shame, because Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson are finally beginning to raise their acting game, perhaps encouraged by the presence of what seems like every major British actor in the supporting cast. But Harry’s enemies feel like rough sketches, placeholders for villains to come, and while the dialogue and frenetic pacing lead us to believe that Harry’s facing some major obstacles, they’re all dealt with so swiftly it’s hard to get worked up about it, even as the film builds toward an intense battle between good and evil wizards at the finale.
Order of the Phoenix lacks the strong cohesive flow of its predecessor, Goblet of Fire, and not merely because that film marked Rowling’s first foray into actually providing a solid structure for her story and external goals to match her characters’ emotional struggles. Yates’ film is a near-success, and in the course of its race to the finish line there are still moments of joy, sadness, and emotional truth that set a new bar for the series. But Yates doesn’t invest enough time and energy in the characters to arouse feelings of true happiness at their successes or sadness when some are lost forever. Order of the Phoenix is the film where Harry Potter finally starts to grow up, but if you blink, you’ll miss the whole thing.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.I Guess This Is Growing Up
Film Reviews | July 13, 2007 | Comments ()