I realized the other day that although I’ve liked every one of the Harry Potter films to one degree or another, I really can’t remember very much about any of them other than Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). The storylines have all jumbled in my mind, so the exact plot of any given title is vague to me, to say the least. I come to these films as a casual admirer and make no claims to expert status in the realm Potterdom. That said, I find the whole concept of a series of books and films that become increasingly mature as they progress—in keeping with the aging of the original targeted readers/viewership and the actors in the films—an agreeable one, not in the least because it expects its audience to grow with it, rather than simply offering more of the same.
This latest entry, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, boasts a new director, David Yates (known in the UK for his highly regarded TV series State of Play), a new screenwriter, Michael Goldenberg (who co-authored P.J. Hogan’s marvelous 2004 film of Peter Pan), and a new composer, Nicholas Cooper (who has worked with Yates on television). The results are certainly more than satisfactory, even if they don’t quite scale the heights of Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban as filmmaking is concerned.
The infusion of new blood on all the major behind-the-camera players serves the film well. Order of the Phoenix is not only the darkest, most sinister (it comes very near to qualifying as a horror picture) and most mature of the films, it’s the most tightly structured. The series’ least appealing aspects—the broad humor involving Harry’s mortal family and the interminable Quidditch matches—have been respectively curtailed or dropped altogether. Apart from the easily identifiable theme, Cooper’s marvelous score jettisons most of John Williams’ music, adopting a grimmer, more menacing tone. This makes for a leaner—and undeniably meaner—film. There’s very little “precious” humor here—apart from the Weasley twins’ (James and Oliver Phelps) moneymaking scheme involving candy that deliberately makes one sick for purposes of getting out of classes. Some viewers may find this disappointing, but it’s certainly in keeping with the overall more serious tone. As a result, this really is not a film for very young viewers.
The screenplay and the direction convey a sense of urgency lacking in the earlier entries. As the overall saga moves toward its final installment, the stakes have risen accordingly. Although this was set up in Mike Newell’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), it’s more and more a life or death situation in Order of the Phoenix. The film wastes no time getting underway, plunging the viewer into the proceedings—and the threat of the return of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes)—within a couple minutes of the main title. And it works.
The story, of course, is simply a continuation of the overall series detailing the growth of its main character and the fantastic machinations that will finally pit him against the evil wizard, Voldemort, who murdered his parents. This round, Harry must face the fact that the head of the Ministry of Magic, Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), has inaugurated a smear campaign against him and against Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) because the minister doesn’t believe—or doesn’t want to believe—their claims that Voldemort has returned. To this end, he has an accomplice, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), who seems to have inherited Celia Imrie’s riot-of-pink wardrobe from Nanny McPhee (2005), making her the witch version of a Mary Kay saleswoman, I suppose. It’s an interesting comedic touch that only lends weight to her astonishing awfulness. Umbridge may not be the most lethal villain in the series to date, but she’s probably the most thoroughly detestable one!
Nearly all of the film works. Yates’ direction is very assured and his use of editing to heighten and inform many scenes is outstanding. There are numerous clever touches (viewers who know their theatre history will be amused to find that Alan Rickman’s Severus Snape has been awarded one of Sheridan Whiteside’s most famous lines from the play The Man Who Came to Dinner) and a stunner of a climax that’s probably the best ending on a Potter film yet. The weakest angle in the film involves Harry’s romance with Cho Chang (Katie Leung), which feels both perfunctory and too unresolved, but this is a minor quibble. As things stand, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is easily the best of the big summer movies. Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images.