Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
In spite of a decline in the main area with which this series has excelled in, the fifth cinematic outing for J.K. Rowling’s beloved boy wizard may be the best one yet. Unlike the “Star Wars” saga- which, love it as I do, hit the ground running only to run out of steam by the end (though “Episode III” made up a lot of ground)- each new film since Chris Columbus first brought Hogwarts to life in “Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Chamber of Secrets” (which look more pedestrian and uninspired- as good as they are- as the series has progressed) has breathed new life into the series, being unafraid to look at the darker undercurrents of the story as Harry (with Daniel Radcliffe continuing to grow deeper into the role, and creating an iconic one), Ron (whom Rupert Grint continues to transfrom childish geek to a mature gentlemen…though not that mature), and Hermione (where Emma Watson has stayed true to her character’s know-it-all origins while allowing the boy’s mischievous nature influence her for the better) go through each year.
Funny how unimportant school becomes as the stakes are raised higher for them and their friends- cramming for finals running a distant second to saving your skin. But Harry sees a void in their schoolwork to be filled, especially after the Ministry of Magic, using The Daily Prophet to spread the notion that Harry (with Daniel Radcliffe continuing to grow deeper into the role, and creating an iconic one) and Professor Dumbledore (whom Michael continues to play with wicked mischief and thundering stature) are exaggerating claims that Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned, sends one of their own- Delores Umbridge (played by the wonderful insincere cheerfulness by Imelda Staunton) to fill the school’s revolving door position of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. (Doesn’t she know that, like being a Spinal Tap drummer, it’s a part-time proposition?) The goal is to alleviate fears through simple-minded rhetoric and a false sense of security; you’ll excuse me for letting parallels to the Bush administration sink in. Harry doesn’t buy into it- neither do a lot of other people- and it isn’t long before they take it upon themselves to prepare for the coming battle.
A quick glance at his resume wouldn’t show anything that makes him an ideal candidate for a “Potter” film, but Brit director David Yates- a television director- proves himself worthy of the opportunity. Though lacking in the visual imagination of “Prisoner of Azkaban’s” Alfonso Cauron and experience in cinematic fantasy of “Goblet of Fire’s” Mike Newell, what Yates brings to the table is an editor’s ruthlessness as a director used to telling stories effectively and efficiently, an important trait to have when you’re dealing with such hefty material (Rowling’s books continually have gotten longer, with “Phoenix” weighing in at over 800 pages). Helping Yates in distilling the story down to its’ essence is Michael Goldenberg, who adapted “Contact” and “Peter Pan” and brings a sure hand to the material. (Previous “Potter” scribe Steve Kloves sat this one out, but will be back, as will Yates, for 2008’s “Half-Blood Prince.”)
Purists will probably wince at the film’s 138 minute running time, and all that was left out, but for my money- as a muggle who hasn’t read Rowlings’ books but has taken fondly to the series onscreen- we’ve seen a story unfold onscreen that’s followed its’ characters through their various arcs without compromising the spirit in which they were created by Rowling. In a perfect world, we could see unabridged filmings of these or any books, but wouldn’t that take away from the experience of imagining the world for ourselves when we read it? A filmmaker’s first step in adaptation is to accept that their vision cannot match those of everyone who has read it. The second is to never let anyone disuade them from their own vision, no matter how harshly it is criticized. It’s a credit to all of the filmmakers involved with all five films that they’ve never forgotten either of these rules.
With two more films to go (including the much-anticipated final book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows,” coming out July 21), one wonders how many more actors will be needed to populate the “Potter” universe. Not that England is short of talent to do so, but what’s most remarkable about the series is how willing some of the country’s best have been to take on recurring supporting roles (almost glorified cameos in many cases) while allowing the series’ young newcomers move the story forward. They’re clearly not bitter, as all bring their A-games to roles that have brought depth and texture to the larger picture. Alan Rickman stills brings his trademark wit and wickedness to Professor Snape, even as we learn the reasons why he dislikes Potter so. Maggie Smith continues to be a force of good and reason at Hogwarts as Professor McGonagall. Robbie Coletrane continues to be a lovable oaf as gameskeeper Hagrid. And Gary Oldman brings further depth to his characterization of Harry’s godfather Sirius Black, which pays off in the film’s exhilarating climax. As Neville Longbottom, always suffering, always put upon, Matthew Lewis continues to show this character’s true colors in endearing and surprising ways (I can’t wait to see where this character heads in the next two films). And where did they find Evanna Lynch, whose debut performance as haunted child Luna Lovegood is the main acting standout in a film with many after Stauton- I became immediately engaged by this character. She doesn’t have a lot of screentime (yet), but Helena Bonham Carter made me intrigued to see more of her villainous Bellatrix Lestrange. And you know we haven’t seen the last of Jason Issacs as the slithering Lucious Malfoy or Tom Felton as his son Draco. And in one of the film’s best scenes, Emma Thompson excels as Sybil Trelawney, the Divination teacher who was a comic device in “Prisoner of Azkaban” but is given real feeling when Umbridge’s reforms cost her her job, which also allows for great moments for Gambon and Smith. It’s hard not to go further with this list, but there’s more to say about other areas…
…like the music, for example. For Columbus and Cauron, John Williams created and expanded upon the world of “Potter” for three films, receiving two Oscar nominations and- with “Azkaban”- writing a sequel score that stands alongside his own “Empire Strikes Back” as one of the greatest ever. Williams stepped aside for “Goblet of Fire,” with Patrick Doyle (“Donnie Brasco,” “Hamlet”) stepping in for an underrated, subdued continuation of the mood and ideas Williams started to explore in “Azkaban.” If it lacked the virtuosity of Williams’ work (that distinct bombast we’ve come to associate with Williams), Doyle’s work nonetheless distinguished itself as the work of a rich musical mind intrigued by continuing the spirit of what came before.
Stepping up to the plate this time out is Nicholas Hooper, a newcomer to film who- like Yates (a longtime collaborator)- cut his teeth on television. It was hard enough to contemplate a seasoned film veteran following in the footsteps of Williams and Doyle, and initially, my opinions of Hooper’s “Phoenix” score were not kind. It worked as film music should, but didn’t seem to follow what came before with much distinction. It still doesn’t, in fact, though after a second viewing, my opinion is kinder. Though still near the bottom of the series (only the painfully derivative “Chamber of Secrets,” despite the beautiful theme for Fawx the Phoenix, sits below it), the score has moments that integrate it beautifully into the “Potter” musical universe, even if it doesn’t exactly find a personality of its’ own as its’ predecessors did.
That said, it’s ultimately the sights, not sounds, that are so integral to the success of “Harry Potter” on the big screen. And “Order of the Phoenix” has its’ fair share of memorable ones. The joy of Harry being reunited by Sirius. The bubbly malevolence in Professor Umbridge’s face. Harry’s first kiss with lovely crush Cho. The young members of Dumbledore’s Army training and being led by Harry. A late night showdown with the Death Eaters in the Hall of Prophecy and the entrance of the Order of the Phoenix into the fray. The sort of stuff Rowling’s readers have had in their heads for years. Whether Yate’s vision of things coincides with theirs is up for debate; whether it makes for great entertainment on the big screen is not. OK, it may not be the best “Potter” onscreen (rewatching much of “Prisoner of Azkaban,” that’s still the series’ cinematic peak), but damned if it doesn’t make you anxious to see how it all plays out.