Harry Potter nirvana this summer, the film based on the fifth book has just been released and the seventh and last (?) book has just been published. I have yet to finish the book, but I have seen “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”.
The fifth book in the series; “Order of the Phoenix” is not my favorite entry by author Rowling. Director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg have managed to downplay many of the elements that made the book slightly unpleasant and put more focus on the characters. “Phoenix” is the longest book and the shortest film, so far, so some elements have been removed completely, for good and bad. But the increased dramatic skills of the three leads, fantastic set design and special effects and a supporting cast of every British character actor ever to appear in film, combine to make this a most enjoyable installment in the film series.
My main problem with the book was Harry was portrayed as too typical a teenager. Yes, he was at that age, so show a little of it, but Harry is supposed to be above such things. He fought with Dumbledore, Ron and Hermione, and this went on and on. Worse, he ignored the advice and instructions of his friends, making him seem a little dumb.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is spending another summer with the Dursleys (Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw) and their nincompoop son, Dudley (Harry Melling). Sitting on a swing, trying to avoid the heat, Dudley comes up with two friends and tries to pick a fight. The weather turns and Dudley and Harry run into an underground tunnel to escape the downpour. Two aurors immediately descend and attack Harry and Dudley. Harry quickly uses his wand and fights them off. Before you know it, he is called before the Ministry of Magic to answer the charge of using magic in front of Muggles. Mad Eye Mooney (Brendan Gleeson) and other members of the Order of the Phoenix arrive to take Harry to their secret headquarters. There, he spots Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), his godfather, and the rest of his faithful friends and supporters. He is a bit petulant about Ron and Hermione’s lack of communication, but softens up when he hears they were ordered by Dumbledore to remain silent. The next morning, at his hearing, Harry is surprised to see Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) appear in his defense. The matter is quickly settled, but Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge decides to appoint Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, “Vera Drake”) as the new Defense of the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts. Upon their arrival, Harry, Ron and Hermione are amazed to learn they will be learning no practical magic, just theory; no one seems to believe Lord Voldemort has returned, so they form a study group of their own, under Harry’s tutelage. But will Professor Umbridge, now appointed a sort of Hogwarts High Inquisitor, be able to find out their plans. Will Professor Snipe (Alan Rickman) be able to help Harry defend himself against He Who Must Not Be Named (Ralph Fiennes)?
Directed by David Yates (HBO’s “The Girl in the Café”, lots of British television) and written by Michael Goldenberg (“Peter Pan”, “Contact”), “Order of the Phoenix” moves at a fast clip, combining nice tongue in cheek humor with good, believable moments of the kids taking matters into their own hands. Add some great set design and some amazing special effects and you have a really enjoyable movie.
“Harry Potter 5” is the darkest film to date, which is appropriate because the books get progressively darker as the stakes become higher for Harry and his friends and associates. As the danger increases, people die and Harry has to live with that; in “Phoenix”, he still deals with the death of Cedric during the Tri Wizard Finals in “Goblet of Fire”. But as Harry is growing up, he also has other things to contend with, mainly puberty, and he can’t seem to keep his eyes off Cho Chang (Katie Leung), who is also grieving over the death of Cedric, her boyfriend. Will Harry and Cho give in to their temptations and enjoy a little kiss?
Hogwart’s Professor of Defense of the Dark Arts has proven to be a difficult position for Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) to staff. Each year, the professor runs into problems and leaves the position. This allows Rowling and the filmmakers to introduce new characters and give a variety of great British actors a good role to sink their teeth into. “Order of the Phoenix” is no exception and introduces us to Professor Dolores Umbridge. Played by Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”, “Freedom Writers”), Umbridge is a prissy woman, always dressed in pink, who has a lot of cats. Yet, when crossed, she can be extremely nasty, while always maintaining a sickly sweet demeanor. Umbridge is appointed to the position by the Minister of Magic, to keep an eye on Dumbledore, who he suspects is trying to take his job. At Hogwarts, she immediately decorates her office in pink and hangs many plates depicting her favorite pet cats. But don’t let the grandmotherly exterior fool you. If you cross her, she is not above having you write lines with a special quill that will also write the words in your flesh, providing a permanent reminder of your impertinence.
There has been a bit of press in the last year about Daniel Radcliffe’s debut in “Equus” on the London stage. Apparently, he disrobed in one scene and was so self conscious about the role that he worked out a lot to make sure he looked good. What does this mean to this film? Not a lot, except Radcliffe has matured and become a bit more buff since even the last film.
Perhaps his stage debut has helped in another way. In “Order of the Phoenix”, Radcliffe, and for that matter, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, have all significantly developed their acting ability. Radcliffe, who as the main character, appears in virtually every scene, has really become a very good actor and brings all of this talent to this story. As Harry Potter, Radcliffe has to show the most range of emotion, conflict, joy and character development. He has always been good, but in the last few films, his skill has developed exponentially and he finally appears to be a natural actor, giving the character traits and ideals we didn’t necessarily get in the first few films.
Rupert Grint, who plays Ron, Harry’s best friend, is the actor who has developed the most during the series. He no longer relies on bugged out eyes and comical mannerisms and has relaxed, allowing his character to become more natural.
Because the three kids have grown up playing these roles, they seem to finally be comfortable with the characters. As they have grown, so have the three friends, each bringing their own personalities to the role and making them unique and interesting.
It seems with each of the films, the various adult actors have their moments in the sun and then fade into the background, providing a rich background for the kid actors. In “Phoenix”, Emma Thompson’s Sybil Trelawney and David Thewlis' Remus Lupin have the briefest of roles. Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall has a few choice moments, including a showdown with Professor Umbridge.
But the real star of the supporting cast is, as always, Alan Rickman. Despite the relatively few scenes featuring Professor Snape, his character is too important to the overall fabric of these stories to fade into the background. In his first scene, Rickman only has to stare at Umbridge, as she questions him about his history at Hogwarts to perfectly exhibit every trait of his character. He utters a single word, “Obviously”, eliciting laughter from the audience. When he speaks, his voice rolls off his tongue in a decidedly sticky manner, providing the character with all of the conflict it needs.
Helena Bonham Carter also makes a first appearance as Bellatrix Lastrange, the sister of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), and an ally of Voldemort. She breaks out of Azkaban prison and then makes her way back to London to aid Voldemort, using her hatred of Muggles and half-breeds as fuel. The role is very over the top, but nonetheless interesting to watch.
In “Phoenix”, the filmmakers introduce us to Sirius’ house, a property he has donated to the Order of the Phoenix, for their use as a headquarters. They also show us to the Ministry of Magic for the first time. Each of these locations is fantastic. The attention to detail really helps both seem real and add to the ever-growing world of “Harry Potter”. I don’t want to go into too much detail, because you should experience them for yourself.
Each of the film translations has trimmed bits of story here and there. It is a necessity; there is no way they could film everything in any single book and make a single movie. There was talk about making “Goblet of Fire” into two movies, one of which would be released in the summer with the conclusion released at Thanksgiving. But they decided against that. In “Order of the Phoenix”, they chopped out entire stories, making the resulting film leaner, faster and perhaps even a little darker. Gone is the Quidditch match in which Ron leads his team to victory. Gone is Doby the house elf and Hermione’s efforts to help the house elves organize against their oppressors. These would have added time to the film and the film doesn’t seem to suffer extraordinarily due to their absence. It just seems odd to have a Harry Potter film with no references to Quidditch. None. Zero. Zilch.
“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” proves to be yet another example of the trend this entire series of films has established. Much like the actors playing the three leads, the films just keep getting better and better.