by David Cornelius
Just when we thought the “Harry Potter” series could offer us no new wonders, along comes “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” in which we thrill to the magical city hidden beneath London, and the all-too-brief glimpse at the mysterious centaurs, and the secret rooms and the hidden passageways, and the epic battle between wizards, in which magic can turn flying shards of glass into white sand.“Phoenix” is indeed a magical film, effortlessly capturing the splendor and delight of the “Potter” franchise. It maintains the technical and artistic levels that the previous films have set - and too often in the discussion of this series it is forgotten that these are impeccably crafted works, gorgeous in their design, bringing an entirely other world to life without a single seam showing. We’re so accustomed to movies looking great that we sometimes take it for granted when they’re actually able to do so without having it be at the expense of story or character. “Phoenix” reminds us that effects-laden blockbusters can also have heart and soul.
"Better and better and better..."
It also dares to dump much of the source material. Much has been said among fans about how, at 138 minutes, “Phoenix” has the shortest running time of all the films while being an adaptation of the longest of all the books. What screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (new to this series, replacing four-time scripter Steve Kloves) attempts is a complete streamlining; he strips the story to its barest essentials, and it works. The focus is tighter, the plotting is leaner, and while the saga retains its epic scope, there’s a dramatic urgency that might have gotten lost in a longer, looser picture.
The director for this entry is David Yates, the veteran of British television and helmer of the excellent “The Girl in the Café.” Yates has proven himself an expert at intimate storytelling, and that’s what helps the series here: close attention paid to personal interaction. Yates delicately balances the fantastic with the dramatic, gloriously oversized visuals with quieter character growth.
Because of this, our attention never wanders, which is important, as things are getting darker by the day for our old pal Harry. We could easily lose our interest in this boy who is no longer an outsider wowed by the magical world he never knew existed - his sense of wonder is fading as he becomes an essential part of that very world. Harry Potter is the central figure in a Tolkien-sized adventure, riddled with complications of too many characters and too many secrets to be revealed. The temptation, then, for the movie series is to get too dark, too serious, too lost in its own web of internal mythology, and, by extension, it would lose its audience.
But Goldenberg’s screenplay remains so sharply focused throughout that the plot never has a chance to get away from us. Yes, it is dark. Yes, it is serious. But it also pauses for the occasional sidestep into new wondrous discoveries (at which Harry - and we - still marvel), and by doing so, the script lets us see this tangled mythology through Harry’s own eyes. By refusing to step away for games of Quidditch or subplots involving Ron or Hermione, we’re reminded that this whole thing is about one boy, who is growing up before our very eyes.
“Phoenix” works in plenty of metaphors for growing up: the discovery of a greater, more complex world around you; a higher awareness in politics and world events; a growing fear that you’re not ready for adulthood; an uncertainty of self. The latter is a key theme: plagued by dreams involving the evil Lord Voldemort, he begins to fear a greater connection between himself and his enemy; the film, then, reveals his internal struggle. Could he become the very thing he dreads? Fortunately for Harry, he has excellent teachers to help aim his moral compass. Sirius Black tells him “we have all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the power we chose to act on.” And later, Dumbledore tells Harry, “It isn’t how you’re like him. It’s how you’re not.” It’s the classic journey, the crossroads at which he realizes he is worthy of being a hero.
Since the story is busy dishing out symbolism, it also tosses up a few jabs at the state of world affairs. The Ministry of Magic is presented as a collection of incompetent leaders blinded by their own fears and self-righteous beliefs. The sinister Dolores Umbridge, loyal to a fault, is eager to embrace admittedly illegal interrogation tactics to achieve her own ends. Dissenting viewpoints are muted at every chance. It would seem, perhaps, that JK Rowling is none too happy with the way things are going in the real world.
Or is this digging too far and looking too closely? Perhaps. For nothing that happens in “Phoenix” is as clumsily obvious as the metaphors on display in, say, “Revenge of the Sith” (a film I absolutely love, even with those clumsy metaphors; it, too, tells the story of a young man challenged by dark temptations, only he succumbs where Harry does not). And, mercifully, the movie refuses to dive too deeply in otherworldly politicking, allowing the plot to provide just enough to keep the drama moving forward. The events in this film are never dry, never stuffy, never uninvolving. It’s not C-Span for Muggles, it’s “Harry Potter,” and this means the magic, the heroics, the sheer wonder of it all is always up front.
And back to Harry. We have watched the character grow up, and yes, we have watched Daniel Radcliffe do the same. I mentioned it in my review of “Goblet of Fire” and it deserves mentioning again: the young cast is improving with age, never content to rest on assured successes. Radcliffe here is willing to take chances and expose an emotionally vulnerable side of himself, and the result is cracking drama that never forgets its human side.
The supporting players are as dependable as always, never a false move. Young and old, there’s not a bad apple in the bunch. How could there be, really, when this franchise has become a who’s-who of British acting, offering up only the finest talent available? It’s refreshing to see everyone return, even if only for a moment. It’s like a family reunion.
New to the cast are Imelda Staunton, whose turn Umbridge is equal parts pure evil and total comic genius (by making her character so unequivocally perky and faux-quaint, she somehow becomes even more sinister), and Helena Bonham Carter as the demented villainess Bellatrix Lestrange, a part that here feels just a bit too small, a hint of bigger things to come.
The most important new addition is Evanna Lynch as fellow student Luna Lovegood. Lynch made headlines as the winner of a casting contest; a lifelong Harry Potter fanatic, she had never acted before. But Lynch’s performance is not just some a casting gimmick. She’s the real deal, an enchanting lass who breathes life into her character. Her character is a calm in the middle of a great storm, and Lynch brings a quiet honest and a gentle quirkiness to that calm. In a cast filled with the best of the best, Lynch is a standout, and a genuine discovery for the ages.And this is how it works with Harry Potter. One minute you’re just another anonymous person, the next, you’re busy saving the world. The series has shown us so many wondrous things, and it has many more on the way.
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originally posted: 07/12/07 03:34:04