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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/10/07 23:08:45

"Hey, Voldemort! Leave Those Wizards Alone!"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The neat thing about the Harry Potter stories is that they recognize and understand the fact that as the series grows older, so has its audience. The smiling 10-year-old boys and girls who dressed up in their best wizard costumes and stood in line to see the first Harry Potter movie back in 2001 are now 16 or so and at that awkward stage in life where they are still too young to be treated as full-fledged adults and yet old enough to perceive most authority figures as clueless dolts who refuse to acknowledge that they are no longer little children. Although “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the fifth installment of J.K. Rowling’s immensely popular franchise, may not be the best film in the series to date, it may well be the most interesting in the way that it allows these real-life feelings and concerns to take the center stage instead of letting the film become just another orgy of special effects. The results may be darker and less family-friendly than previous installments but this ambitious take comes as a welcome shot in the arm for a series that could just as easily be running on fumes at this point.

When we last left Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), he discovered at the end of his fourth year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry that the fearsome Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the monster that murdered Harry’s parents and gave him a near-fatal killing spell that the boy somehow managed to overcome, had indeed come back from his mysterious exile and was planning his return to power. While spending the summer with his hateful adopted family in London, he and loathsome cousin Dudley are attacked by a pair of rogue Dementors and Harry can only fight them off with a magic spell. Since using such spells in public is forbidden until the age of 18, Harry is immediately expelled from Hogwarts by the Ministry of Magic. However, Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), the beloved headmaster of Hogwarts, comes to his defense before the Ministry and gets him reinstated. However, in doing so, he reiterates his belief that Harry is telling the truth regarding the imminent return of Voldemort, news that few people are willing to even listen to, let alone believe.

Unfortunately, one of those people keeping their head firmly planted in the sand is the Minister of Magic himself–he is under the paranoid and mistaken belief that Dumbledore is after his job and is making up stories of Voldemort’s return as a way of getting himself into office. When smear campaigns against Harry and Dumbledore in the ministry-controlled press fail to do the trick, the Minister takes the next step by insisting that one of his own people be appointed to the seemingly jinxed position of Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher. Sadly, in a slot that has already been filled with a Voldemort follower, a werewolf and Kenneth Branagh, this latest addition–an ill vision in cotton-candy pink named Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton)–may be the worst of the lot. A confirmed reactionary, she spends more time toeing the Ministry line that everything is perfectly fine instead of teaching her students how to defend themselves against the Dark Arts and punishes those who stand up to here with techniques that border on torture. As Umbridge expands her influence from the classroom to the entire school–she eventually takes over as headmaster from the now-vanished Dumbledore–Harry leads a group of the more rebellious students, including longtime chums Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), prospective love interest Cho Chang (Katie Leung) and oddball newcomer Luna Lovagood (Evanna Lynch), in surreptitious defense lessons to prepare them for the battle that he is certain is coming before long.

At over 800 pages, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” was the longest of the books and so it is more than a little ironic that at 139 minutes, the film adaptation would become the shortest of the movies to date. Normally when a book of this size gets telescoped down into a feature film, it runs the risk of playing more like a string of highlights than a fully-formed story. That is not the case here because screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (taking over for Steven Kloves, who adapted the previous books) has wisely cut back on the elements that may have run their course (the screen time given to house elves and moving paintings has been greatly reduced and the characters are too wrapped up in their troubles to even come close to hitting the Quidditch field) in order to focus on the real story–Harry leading his friends in rebellion against the powers-that-be in a way that suggest what “If” might have been like if Malcolm McDowell and his pals had been issued magic wands. There are a couple of hiccups as a result of this streamlining–the much-vaunted romance between Harry and Cho Chang (including his first kiss) is somewhat sidelined and intriguing new characters such as the aforementioned Luna Lovagood and the hideous Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter at her most alluringly creepy) are thrown into the proceedings without much explanation as to who they are or what purpose they serve. I presume that these characters are fleshed out a little mor in the book and will play more pivotal roles in the next two installments but those who haven’t read the books are liable to be left scratching their heads and looking for the nearest 10-year-old to fill in the blanks.

The other major newcomer behind the scenes is David Yates, a British televison director (perhaps best known for his politically-minded romance “The Girl In the Café”) who is making his feature film debut here. To kick off a filmmaking career on a project of this size and scale can be a double-edged sword–while the pre-sold nature of the property means that it is virtually guaranteed to be a hit, there are also enormous audience expectations that most unknowns filmmakers rarely have to face their first time out of the gate. For the most part, he does a pretty good job of making a real movie that lives and breathes on its own instead of simply giving us a live-action retelling of what was on the printed page–the common criticism of the first two films in the series. When the focus of the film is on the characters and what they are going through, he is more than adept at keeping the story grounded in reality. Where he stumbles is when the special-effects begin to dominate the proceedings, especially during the climactic battle in a warehouse of prophecies between Harry and his cohorts and Voldemort and his minions–Yates doesn’t yet have an eye for handling the elaborate visual material and the longer those sequences go on, the more confusing they become. Although Yates doesn’t hit that magical blend of the natural and the supernatural in the way that Alfonso Cuaron did in the third (and still the best) episode, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” his work here is never less than solid and occasionally more than that. (The producers have already hired him to direct “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood,” the next installment in the series so they clearly have confidence in his abilities.)

The element of the “Harry Potter” movies that really sells the material and makes it stand head and shoulders above any of its competition, is the high level of performances from all of the cast members. As the role of Harry Potter has grown deeper and more complex with each passing role, Daniel Radcliffe has done the same and the fresh-faced youth from the first film has convincingly morphed into and older, wiser and angrier teen while still remaining eminently likable. Although their parts have gradually begun to shrink as the Harry-Voldemort conflict takes center stage, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are still quite engaging as Ron and Hermione. Once again, it appears as if half the members of British Equity have been recruited to play the adult roles–such regulars as Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson, Gary Oldman, Julie Walters, Timothy Spaal, David Thewlis and Alan Rickman once again crop up–and instead of condescending to the material, they treat it as seriously as they would any other part and lend an extra layer of class to the proceedings even as their roles also begin to recede in importance. (Alan Rickman, as the cold-blooded Professor Snape, only briefly shows up this time around but he once again manages to steal the show every time he walks into a scene.) As the major new cast addition this time around, Imelda Staunton, perhaps best known as the merry-faced abortionist in Mike Leigh’s “Vera Drake,” is absolute perfect as the vile Professor Umbridge–with her grotesquely cheery wardrobe and patently insincere smile, she is perhaps the ultimate version of the kind of narrow-minded teacher more interested in making sure that her students learn about her absolute authority than in the lessons she is supposed to be conveying.

It will be interesting to see how audiences who know of Harry Potter only through the films will respond to “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” Because it is darker in tone and more violent than the other films (parents should be warned that the film is rated PG-13 for a good reason), it may be too much for younger viewers and since the story plays more as a set-up for the next two stories than as a stand-alone tale, some viewer may come away from it without the sense of satisfaction that they got from the other, more self-contained stories. As of now, I would rank the film in the middle of the pack–I liked it better than the first two but not quite as much as the last two–but I suspect that once the entire saga is done with, it will wind up growing in stature among viewers in the way that “The Empire Strikes Back” did many years ago. For the moment, though, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is a more-than-worthy addition to a better-than-average film franchise and stands as a sharp rebuke to the increasingly prevalent notion that big-budget blockbusters have to be brain-dead eye candy in order to succeed with viewers.

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