Finally … a long overdue review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (‘Phoenix’), directed by David Yates, which was released mid-July.
This was yet another resounding commercial success for Warner Brothers, although there didn’t seem to be the same ‘buzz’ for this movie as others in the series – partly perhaps because publishers were poised to release the final long-awaited installment of JK Rowling’s septology, and partly I think because Phoenix was one in a long line of what has felt like chronic sequelitis this Summer.
I enjoyed this particular outing of the Harry Potter franchise more than any other movie in the series bar one – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, which remains the high point of the series and is an outstanding movie in its own right.
Phoenix’s director David Yates has a hugely respectable career in TV. Indeed, State of Play (2003) and the Trollope adaptation, The Way We Live Now (2001), are, to my mind, two of the best televisual experiences of the decade. Warner Brothers gambled, to some extent, on Yates. Phoenix is his first major Hollywood movie – and boy, what a baptism of fire, taking on one of the world’s best-known and best-loved heroes (Harry), orchestrating the cream of Britain’s acting talent, and handling a blockbuster budget.
Yates copes admirably well, truly rising to the challenge. Phoenix is a superbly crafted film, darkly atmospheric, successfully relaying the often convoluted narrative of Rowling’s rather bloated source with concision and style.
Indeed, Michael Goldenberg, the screenwriter in this instance, deserves kudos for tackling Rowling’s rather over-stuffed novel, adapting it into a manageable 138 minutes, without us losing any of the substance or flavour of the original.
In many respects, this novel out of all of Rowling’s Potter instalments, was probably the most suited to Yates’s talents. There are strong political overtones resonant throughout, as the Ministry of Magic exerts quasi-fascistic controls over the wizarding world, most especially at Hogwarts, the school of magic attended by Harry Potter and his cohorts.
The primary focal point for this statist repression is Dolores Umbridge – to my mind Rowling’s most fearsome villain barring none. She is the classic everyday baddie who dogs everyone’s day to day lives, using the rulebook as an excuse for exercising excessive power. Indeed, she revels in wielding power for its own sake.
In Phoenix, Umbridge is portrayed with supreme nastiness by Imelda Staunton – one of Britain’s finest actresses. She sports cuddly pink cardigans and her office wall is festooned with meowing decorative plates featuring cuddly little kittens. But she is a vile, inhumane creature, prepared to torture Harry – who is notably still a minor – with a punishing quill, which etches whatever is written into the writer’s skin. Harry is subjected to an eye-watering detention where he must write one hundred lines using this same pen. It is a chilling scene, well portrayed in this movie, representing what is in fact a more prolonged period of torture in Rowling’s novel.
However, in Phoenix it is Voldemort, played here by Ralph Fiennes, who emerges as the scariest villain of all. This was an interesting reversal on the novel. Indeed, Voldemort, in my opinion, is one of the weakest links in Rowling’s series. But in Yates’s film he takes on a new and frightening dimension, most especially in one invented scene, where Harry is convinced he sees him, in ‘Muggle’ clothing, watching him at Kings Cross Station.
Credit must surely go to Fiennes too. He often plays smooth gentlemanly types, and it is all too easy to forget his star turn as the psychopathic Nazi Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, where he emanated real, stomach-churning evil. He carries this same sinister sense into Voldemort – although notably not in the Mike Newell-directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which was a real mess of a film.
Similarly impressive in the baddie department was Jason Isaacs, playing the wondrously unctuous and pernicious Lucius Malfoy. Sadly we only get a brief outing of Isaacs’s considerable talents during a climactic Ministry of Magic sequence, when Harry and his loyal troupe of teenie friends (known here as Dumbledore’s Army) are forced into a terrifying confrontation with Voldemort’s ‘Deatheaters’ – masked enforcers of his dark magic and strong proponents of his racist drive for ‘pureblood’ supremacy in the wizarding world.
Meanwhile Helena Bonham-Carter makes for a delightfully insane Bellatrix Lestrange. Her wild Gothicism is such a far cry from the demure English miss of 1980s heritage cinema. She truly has become one of Britain’s cinematic treasures.
As for the remaining cast. Much has been made of Daniel Radcliffe’s improved acting skills in the role of Harry Potter (most particularly since his famous debut on the London stage in Peter Schaffer’s Equus), and there is much to be said here for how Radcliffe carries Potter’s intense psychological journey in Phoenix with considerable aplomb.
His supporting star and best mate in the narrative, Ron Weasley, is played again by Rupert Grint. I have harboured doubts over Grint’s acting abilities. I positively loathed his constant mugging and jaw-dropped gawps in the earlier films, but he has matured splendidly.
The same cannot be said, however, for Emma Watson, who plays Hermione Granger, who seems to closely adhere to the Keira Knightley ‘Wooden’ school of acting; forced, shrill, over-emotional, ridiculously posh, emitting this strange little panting sob whenever she is required to emote, or indeed, act – it was most disturbing. This is such a pity, because to my mind, in Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Watson was the finest of the trio, by some distance. I genuinely thought she had the acting chops to outshine her co-stars. But both here, and in the immediately preceeding Potter film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Newell, 2005), she has faltered badly.
The remaining cast turn in solid performances, however fleeting, which is so often the case with these action-packed films, seemingly over-stuffed with characters. However, mention must be made of Evanna Lynch, the young Irish actress who has taken on the role of loopy Luna Lovegood. Her scenes with Harry are intensely touching, the emotional highlights of the film, excepting a moving collage of flashbacks experienced by Harry, when he fights off Voldemort in the Ministry of Magic, and all seems lost.
The film itself boasts strong cinematography, retaining the darker palette now commonly associated with the Potter franchise. The opening sequences are particularly impressive, depicting a Dementor attack on Harry and his obnoxious cousin Dudley. I always relish the times in Potter movies when the magic world intrudes upon the ‘muggle’ world, and this is no exception. Yates excels at this spot of grim social realism – in this case a gloomy, graffitied underpass – and this, as a consequence, is the strongest section of the entire film.
I also enjoyed the scenes set in the Ministry of Magic, although the final duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore was a little too focused on close-ups, and could have fared well with wider visual exposition. Also, the emphatic moment when Sirius falls through the ‘veil’ was a little underwhelming.
Similarly, the CGi inclusion of Hagrid’s giant brother Grawp in the Forbidden Forest, adds little to proceedings.
We also see 12, Grimmaud Place, Sirius’s home and the headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix. It is a grimy, miserable old house, and the inclusion of Sirius’s mean-spirited house elf Kreacher, adds a little bit of black humour to proceedings. However, the film omits the shrieking, abusive portrait of Mrs Black, Sirius’s long-dead mother, which was something of a loss I felt in terms of her potential comic value.
Despite these failings, this is the second best film in the Potter franchise to date, offering a strong, coherent plot and Yates notably deploys some neat little cinematic touches: a flashback montage and the use of the Daily Prophet as a transition device.
Even so, it lacks the soul and magic, the cinematic artistry, of Cuaron’s earlier film, but it is a strong calling card for Yates’s obvious directorial talents.
Having said that, I am a little disappointed that Yates is taking on the sixth novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This is partly because I rather like the idea of each film being directed by someone different, bringing their own ideas and personality to the mix. However, I am also unconvinced that the plot material will suit Yates’s more politicised sensibilities.
To my mind, the sixth novel is the weakest in the series, (I also dislike Book Four). Sure, it has a dark underpinning – Dumbledore’s death and Voldemort/Riddle’s back-story – but it is the frothiest, most hormonal of all the novels, and this, I think, will not fare well in Yates’s hands. The romantic histrionics will also lead to even more egregious acting from Emma Watson I fear. And I am also concerned that the strong focus on Draco Malfoy, will mean an abundance of Tom Felton, who is not the strongest actor in the series, in my opinion.
Perhaps Yates will coax career-best performances from his bright, young stars – I certainly hope so, especially in Felton’s case, as Draco’s subplot was to my mind the most gripping and emotional aspect of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Draco was rendered a truly intriguing character, with plentiful room for further development, and I was hugely disappointed that Draco’s role was not substantially enhanced in the final book in the series.
In sum, Yates’s directorial handling here is slick and competent, ensuring an enjoyable if slightly uninspiring film. For certain Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has not lodged in my mind as particularly memorable, unlike the glorious third movie in the franchise from Alfonso Cuaron. But this was definitely one of the highlights of the Summer blockbuster season, although bested with effortless ease by Paul Greengrass’s high octane thriller The Bourne Ultimatum.