The central conflict
in ORDER OF THE
concerns Hogwart's latest Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor,
Dolores Umbridge (a perfectly cast Imelda Staunton), whose painted-on
smile and prim maternalism are transparently phony from the first line
she delivers. She is an agent of the Ministry of Magic, which
sent her to Hogwarts in an effort to quell the "unfounded" rumors
concerning the reemergence of Lord Voldemort. As she divides
conquers through the recruitment of the usual Hogwarts malcontents
(Filch, Crabbe, Goyle, the Malfoys, et al), she gradually attains
ultimate power over all Hogwarts students, unseating Dumbledore and
appointing herself Headmistress in the process.
All of this can be viewed as merely another hurdle that Harry, Ron, Hermione and the gang must overcome en route to the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, two installments from now. We are never quite sure which incidents and conflicts are part of Voldemort's (or perhaps Dumbledore's) grand design, an uncertainty that contributes to the uneasy tension in the film. Are Dolores Umbridge and the Ministry acting in their own self-interest, perhaps being guided and controlled Voldemort himself, or are they well-intentioned but misguided by their own ignorance and denials of Voldemort's existence? The film's resolution makes clear everyone's loyalties, but it is obvious that the lines between good and evil are becoming increasingly blurred at Hogwarts. The use of magic in the earlier Potter films and books was underscored by wonder and enchantment; by now, magic has become something dark and fear-inducing.
With THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, Daniel Radcliffe should silence any critics who questioned his acting range in past films. He is both convincing and commanding in the most complex portrayal of Harry to date, being required to convey his own inner conflicts and torment rather than generating tension through interaction with others. The biggest surprise in the cast is Emma Watson, who seemed increasingly unsure and mannered in each successive film, but who in PHOENIX delivers a very controlled and natural performance. Fans of Alan Rickman's Severus Snape (and who isn't?) will be glad to find his chillingly ambiguous character playing a more prominent role than in the last film (GOBLET OF FIRE), while Gary Oldman is especially memorable in what will be (minor spoiler ahead) Sirius Black's final appearance in the series. As mentioned, the other regulars have less to do this time around, though all are as delightful as ever in their limited screen time. Some might wish that Rupert Grint had more to do (if the film lacks anything, it's a good Harry-and-Ron scene), but he and the other supporting players will presumably be major factors in the forthcoming HALF-BLOOD PRINCE and DEATHLY HALLOWS.
There will probably be the usual complaints about all that was omitted from the story en route from page to screen, considering that one of the longest books in the series (at nearly 900 pages) has resulted in the shortest film (at two hours and 15 minutes) of them all. But each of J.K. Rowling's massive tomes would be worthy of a mini-series by itself, so severe abridgment of the novels is an expectation by now. It's definitely not the film for Potter neophytes, but it more than lives up to expectations for longtime fans of the series. And for longtime fans, that's saying a lot. - JL
JB: HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX may have some more nostalgic fans of the series wishing for the good old days of THE SORCERER'S STONE, when Harry's biggest problem was getting past a three-headed dog named Fluffy. It is even hard to believe that THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is a direct sequel to the relatively dark GOBLET OF FIRE. In that film, with Harry risking life and limb through three potentially deadly challenges, we were still treated to feelgood fluffier moments like Ron's dance lesson with Professor McGonagall, Hermione's debut at the Yule Ball, and Hagrid's woo-pitching with Madam Maxine. There are very few light moments in THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX - it begins dark and keep getting darker. (2012 update - compared to the final three films, PHOENIX now seems relatively light-hearted to me! - JB)
Yet, it is because of this that HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is as good as any of the previous films, and better than some. My main complaint about the otherwise grand CHAMBER OF SECRETS is that in story and style, it is nearly a complete retread of THE SORCERER'S STONE. THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX owes little in story or style to any previous Potter film. Even the Dementors from THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN have been redesigned to be, if it is possible, even more nightmarish than before. The movie may not resemble earlier entries, but the series itself remains vibrant because of the fresh approach.
As stated above this is Harry's story and, holy cricket, Daniel Radcliffe turns out to be an excellent adult actor. Good as Radcliffe was in the past, some of his more dramatic moments in AZKABAN and GOBLET OF FIRE struck me as a bit forced. Yet ORDER OF THE PHOENIX sits squarely on his shoulders and he carries the film firmly, maintaining a level of intensity throughout that is entirely convincing. Compare his yelling "Look at me!" to Dumbledore in this film to any of his previous outbursts, and the difference will be crystal-ball clear.
I also agree with the above assessment of Emma Watson, whose portrayal of teen angst in GOBLET OF FIRE sometimes resembled the beginnings of a nervous breakdown. Here, she begins to play Hermione with a softer touch, as a loving friend who gently prods and helps Harry rather than as a walking bushy-haired exposition machine. Likewise, the glances, half-smiles and sparse but revealing dialogue she shares with Rupert Grint as Ron should gladden the hearts of Ron/Hermione worshippers everywhere. It is true that Grint is underused, but he still manages to imbue Ron Weasley with enough warmth and character to make it worthwhile just having him there, even if he doesn't do much. These three young actors have been guided by some very talented directors over the series, and we should tip our hat to David Yates for helping make Harry's troubled state of mind so credible and bringing Hermione back from the brink of severe bipolar disorder. But, since Yates has already signed to direct THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, we could also politely ask him to give Ron a bit more to do next time around.
Compared to the previous four films, ORDER OF THE PHOENIX has fewer setpieces and special effects showcases. With nearly 900 pages of story to get through, there is little time to stop and admire such things as the beautifully rendered Thestrals, the evil-looking but friendly winged horses that live around Hogwarts. There are so many plot points to cover, director Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg resort to the old cliché of moving things along with newspaper headlines, though this done stylishly enough to be an asset to the film. Still, things move so quickly, we don't even learn much about some of the more prominent characters. Newcomer Evanna Lynch is perfect as the spacey Luna "Loony" Lovegood, yet we are told little else about her except that her mother accidentally killed herself up with a spell. Cho Chang, once again played by Katie Leung, is still a fill in the blank character, inserted into the film, as in GOBLET, to be the pretty girl Harry gets hot and bothered over. Everything in PHOENIX is story driven, so that even when a sequence featuring Hagrid's giant brother Grawp appears to be included merely to give Ron and Hermione some welcome character moments, it turns out to be integral to the plot, as the CGI-rendered 16-foot Grawp later figures into one of the film's best payoff scenes.
Some members of the adult cast have barely more than walk-on parts, including Natalia Tena as the intriguing young witch Nymphadora Tonks, a popular character from the Rowling novel seemingly written into the film merely to satisfy the "it's got to be like the book" crowd. However, Imelda Staunton carries on the proud tradition of unforgettable Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers that started with Kenneth Branagh in CHAMBER OF SECRETS. If it weren't for the fine performance of Daniel Radcliffe, Staunton would own this film lock, stock and barrel. The character of Dolores Umbridge may be purely two- dimensional, but Staunton excels at raising the level of controlled evil with each successive scene, making her eventual threat to use one of the Unforgivable Curses on Harry frighteningly plausible. Conversely, Michael Gambon dials down the crazy as Dumbledore, giving his most dignified performance yet as the wise old wizard. For people who still miss the late Richard Harris's excellent by-the-book portrayal of Dumbledore, here's a tip: get over it. Gambon may not be everybody's idea of Dumbledore, but in several scenes, including one in which he refuses to go quietly when confronted by Umbridge and the Ministry of Magic, he is perfect.
There are some minor continuity questions left literally hanging in the air (if only Harry and Luna can see the Thestrals, how can the rest of Harry's friends ride them?), but if the film has any major faults, they would be the script's tendency to tell rather than show events, and the MTV-style editing of the less-than-epic battle between the forces of Good and Evil at the end. This makes the last few minutes of the film less satisfying than the endings of the previous entries. I will also admit that, although I like this film tremendously, it's more of a placeholder than a vital installment that propels the overall Voldemort - Harry arc. So, by the end, you may be thinking "That was great, but I wish they'd just get on with it!". Then again, this late in the series, there probably won't be any more satisfying conclusions to Harry Potter films until Harry himself takes on Voldemort in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. Even then, we still might not be satisfied. * - JB
* NOTE: See my review of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PT. 2! My own prophecy came true about not being satisfied!
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