If it sounds like Harry’s got quite a lot on his plate this time around it’s because he does, and that’s both the strength and weakness of “Order of the Phoenix.”
It’s not an easy thing to translate any book to film, with their large cast of characters and subplots, which may be easy enough to keep track of in novel, but get lost in the momentum of a film unless it reaches epic, hard-to-sit-through length. In fact, it’s almost as difficult as it is to make the middle segment of a multi-part story work satisfyingly on it’s own, and “Order of the Phoenix” has to do both, and in a tidy 138 minutes at that. The result is a film with a lot going on – some of it inherited from previous films, some of it not that paradoxically causes it to drag quite a bit in the middle as it hops around from plot point to character to plot point like a bird searching for a comfortable perch and never really finding one.
After surviving an attack by soul-sucking Dementors, Harry is quickly whisked away from his home on Privet Drive by the titular Order a secret society created by Harry’s aloof Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) to fight Voldemort including shape changer Nymphadora Tonks (Natalia Tena), who understandably hates her name, and staunch Kingsley Shacklebolt (George Harris). They account for two of five new characters introduced in “Order of the Phoenix” who have to try and find room among the already considerable cast that has been accrued over four films, almost all of whom make return appearances, from uber-paranoid bottle-glassed seer Emma Thompson to the suavely villainous Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), and the film suffers from this embarrassment of riches. With so many characters, most are reduced to slightly more than set dressing, adding texture to the world, but little else, particularly Alan Rickman who remains criminally underused despite a handful of excellent scenes. “Order of the Phoenix” continues the series’ tradition of fine actors in the supporting roles, but many have no real reason to be there beyond the fact they were in the books, and for the film to stand on it’s own that’s just not good enough. Two excellent exceptions to that are Imelda Staunton’s despicable Dolores Umbridge and ethereal Luna Loony’ Lovegood (Evanna Lynch).
The Ministry of Magic that runs the wizarding world refuses to admit that Voldemort has returned, and have resorted to running a media smear campaign against Harry and Dumbledore, discrediting them even as they try to build support for a war they’ve come to realize is inevitable, and the Ministry has decided to take the campaign right to Harry’s doorstep through the appointment of Umbridge as Hogwart’s newest professor and High Inquisitor. Umbridge is a vile treat who stands apart from most of the other evil witches and wizards that populate the Harry Potter world because among them all she represents a banal villainy not at all removed from the real world. An administrative authoritarian in love with her own power, she passes decree after decree, restricting the students more and more, trying to force them into the mold she wants. When Harry challenges her authority and starts teaching other students suddenly forbidden defensive magic to prepare them for the war she refuses to admit is coming, he is submitted to a variety of corporal punishments, beginning with quills that etch words in the back of the writer’s hands. Umbridge does so without compunction, rationalizing that “deep down, all children know they deserved to be punished.” In spite of all the monsters, Death Eaters, and Dark Lords author J.K. Rowling has created, Umbridge may well be the worst of the lot.
On the opposite end is the more than slightly odd Luna Lovegood. Like a lot of children’s literature, the Harry Potter series deals in types for it’s characters, and it’s the execution that determines how well that works. Luna is executed very well by newcomer Lynch with a perfect blend of wisdom and vacancy that’s far easier to describe than to perform. Her scenes with Harry are among the high points of “Order of the Phoenix” and one of the few times it really seems to stop and appreciate it’s own moments.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t get very many because there is just too much else going on in “Order of the Phoenix.” Unsurprisingly, the focus of the film is firmly on Harry his name’s in the title after all and how he is dealing with Umbridge and being made into a pariah along with menacing dreams and visions of the Dark Lord that have begun to plague him. And if that weren’t enough, Cho Chang (Katie Leung), the girl of his dreams has finally started to notice him and he’s got to figure out what to do about that. The film wisely deals with his internal dilemmas through the way he interacts with others, particularly his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), and his falsely accused godfather, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman).
The trio has always had believable chemistry and their scenes together are still strong despite the fact their ability as performers appears to be plateauing, though this may partially be due to playing the same characters for so long. They often seem to fall back to familiar patterns regardless of the context of the scene. Radcliffe in particular often seems stuck in a mode of earnest defiance, which is generally all Harry needs, but makes it difficult to become involved in the scenes of personal introspection. Because the focus is so strongly on Harry, Ron and Hermione’s character development is reduced quite a bit from previous outings. Their purpose here is entirely in how they relate to Harry, and how he relates to them, and less so on their own lives and problems.
The same is true for Oldman, one of the few returning cast members who gets quite a bit to do, but the veteran performer injects a great deal of empathy and wiliness into Black. As someone who has also dealt with the pain of losing friends to Voldemort and been made into a scapegoat by the Ministry for his trouble, Harry views Sirius as the only one who really understands what he’s going through. For several reasons, Harry’s relationship with Sirius is probably the most important in the film but despite some excellent individual scenes the whole tends to be less than the sum of its parts largely because the dictates of the plot put quite a bit of time in between them, and it’s often difficult to really believe in what the characters claim to be feeling. “Order of the Phoenix” has a tendency and not just with Sirius, but throughout the film to resort to telling instead of showing in order to work through the tremendous amount of material they have. It’s never enough to quite make you care as much as you feel you’re supposed to.
One character that does actually benefit from the film’s structure is Matthew Lewis’ Neville Longbottom, and both Matthew and his cinematic alter ego come into their own in “Order of the Phoenix” as Neville is given a lot of the development other, usually more prominent, characters have been denied. Continuously the worst in his class, Neville discovers a reason to find his inner warrior when Bellatrix LeStrange (Helena Bonham Carter), the torturer of his parents, escapes from the wizarding prison. Neville has always seemed to be one of the under appreciated parts of the cast and he makes the most of his brief time in the spotlight.
But for every good moment, there are two or three missed opportunities. The rest of the young cast is left behind as much as the adults are. The normally extremely entertaining Phelps twins who tended to create the best moments of the previous film are largely absent here, as is eternal bully Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). As the plot continues to grow, Harry’s childhood dilemmas are gradually usurped by the problems of the adult world who cares about bullies when you have a Dark Lord to face and the loss is keener than it sounds as plot issues intrude into individual stories, occluding the resolution of long term conflicts in favor of larger moments.
There are benefits to being in the middle of a series, particularly one utilizing the same setting over and over, and the production design is as wonderful as ever. Director David Yates has kept the design aesthetic of his predecessors, particularly Cuaron and Newell’s, but doesn’t try and reinvent the wheel. Whimsy is difficult to pull off at the best of times, but Yates handles it well, and his additions to the Harry Potter world fit in seamlessly. The Ministry of Magic and its Department of Mysteries look impeccable, particularly the Department of Mysteries, with it’s menacing black brick and doors to nowhere.
The effects work, a staple of any large-scale fantasy film, are more of a mixed bag. Most of the work is excellent, but some of the digital creatures particularly Hagrid’s half-brother Grawp look as if they belong in a film from ten years ago. They’re not bad, but with the work being done in effects today, some of it in this very series, they simply do not stand up.
Most of the film’s problems are ironed out by the end as the Harry and his friends race to the Department of Mysteries to face off against the Death Eaters for the first time in a rousing finale, the most action heavy of the series to date. “Order of the Phoenix” finally comes together in character, plot and craft as the Order and the Death Eaters face off, leading up to a much-anticipated duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort. The imagery is evocative and well designed, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the filmmakers were in such a rush to get there that they didn’t give the middle the attention it deserves.
A serviceable installment of the series, if “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” doesn’t handle all of it’s many parts with the aplomb of previous Potter films what it does offer is still very fine and despite an underdone middle it’s generally well-crafted, particularly it’s slam bang finish. Parents of young children should be warned, however, it’s easily the darkest of the Potter films to date and may not be suitable for the very young.
Everyone else should get a kick out of it, though.