Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Directed by David Yates
Warner Brothers, 2007
By David Hollands
Harry Potter’s suffered a lot, and not just in terms of facing the same enemy repeatedly – Potter must also contend with horrible film adaptations. There has only been one great entry in this franchise, and even that one was marred by bad special effects. But something amazing has happened: the Potter franchise has its first masterpiece.
In Order of the Phoenix, Harry is frustrated. After last squaring off against Lord Voldemort, Harry’s still experiencing unwanted paternalism. There are signs that Voldemort is building an army. The stubborn head of the Ministry of Magic, that which governs the world of Wizards, refuses to acknowledge them. Harry is plagued by nightmares in which it seems as if he is Voldemort committing heinous acts. And Hogwarts, the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry that Harry attends, is taken over by a Ministry-appointed headmistress whose job is to make sure the students remain in a constant state of ignorance and bliss.
Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg and director David Yates do well in removing the flab found in the novel. This adaptation is lean and mean. Considering how much is cut from the novel, it is surprising that the movie never feels rushed. Key moments are given the proper amount of time to develop. That’s good, since what’s here is beautiful: Harry’s first kiss under a blossoming mistletoe, tragedies shared between Harry and a psychologically damaged girl, and the revelation that Harry’s father may not entirely deserve his son’s praise, to name a few.
This is easily the most fascinating of Potter’s adventures. Sometimes the line between good and evil becomes blurred, since there’s ultimately so little separating those two extremes. The filmmakers hypothesize that one thing separates good people from bad, and if a person doesn’t realize this idea, then he or she is no better than the antagonists. To drive this home, it is shown that Harry comes dangerously close to that dark side. It’s a brave moment, and the film’s best and most frightening scene.
Also, the satire is razor sharp. Following Ministry of Magic guidelines, the new Headmistress attempts to convince students that there is no danger in our world and that students would not require skills outside of those taught in controlled environments. This ideology rings unfortunately true these days – just look at how children’s entertainment has been sanitized to the point of embarrassment, to demonstrate but one example. If we’re only taught to be ignorant, how can we understand, recognize, and combat evil? How will we be able to recognize evil in ourselves?
The acting is the best of the series. Daniel Radcliffe is excellent; his Harry Potter has a tragic world-weariness that feels real and appropriate. Emma Watson is fantastic, her Hermione Granger somehow even more adorable than in previous entries. Even Rupert Grint is great as Ron Weasley, a miracle considering he’s an abysmal actor. Ralph Fiennes channels his Amon Goeth from Schindler’s List, creating the most terrifying incarnation of Voldemort we’ve yet seen. The supporting players, including a stunning Michael Gambon as former Hogwarts Headmaster Dumbledore, are living examples of perfect casting.
David Yates blesses the proceedings with a gritty feel. Duels are shot handheld, giving the set pieces a sense of urgency and weight. The cinematography by Slawomir Idziak bathes this wonderland in darkness; not a shot goes by that doesn’t contain a shadow or intense film grain. This world looks dirty, and with good reason. The filmmakers are content with scaring the daylights out of the younger audience members. Yates holds back none of the punches, though the violence and terror are never without purpose. It’s a necessity in this film, and there’s something sad about that, that its presence somehow feels absolutely right in what should be a child’s paradise. It’s the world we live in now, it’s the world we’ve always lived in, and it’s about time modern children’s entertainment had the guts to deal with it head-on.