Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Director: David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon
So is it good or bad that the fifth Harry Potter film feels so much like the previous four? The Potter movies are always flawed in the same way — too crowded with characters, ideas and unfinished threads — yet they’re also always weirdly enjoyable beyond their limitations. So the downside is that nothing really stands out in this film. I defy you to go up to anyone who has been watching the films, but hasn’t read the books, and ask them to tell you the key plot MacGuffin of “Chamber of Secrets” or “Goblet of Fire.” In the end, they all blur into one underlit labyrinth through which three insanely fortunate child actors run to or from one excellent, aging character actor after another.
Yeah, there are some differences this time — Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry is mopier and angrier, with J.K. Rowling’s plot to the fifth novel showcasing teen angst — but the movie still blends in with all the rest. Once again, we cover an entire school year, this time adapting with unreasoned fealty a book that ran nearly 900 pages, in a movie that’s not quite two and a half hours. Again, plot points are touched upon to not disappoint the manic readers of the book series, but then dropped without satisfying the movie audience at all. And of course, most of the film is shot in darkness, and there’s a vague and ill-understood menace that includes a noseless Ralph Finnes dancing through quick-flash insert shots and hissing menacingly. At least this one doesn’t end with a big banquet scene announcing that Harry’s sub-unit of the Hogwart’s School had earned more points than its rivals, all while keeping to an acceptable body count. The backstory of Harry’s late, lamented parents is filled in with some interesting details, and Harry’s relationship with the villainous Voldemort is given a bit of a theoretical wrinkle that may play out interestingly in later films.
The sameness of the films, despite different directors, is impressive when compared to other long-running franchises, though. “Star Wars” episodes never felt the same, and the series tanked midway through the third picture. “Alien” should’ve stopped at two, “Star Trek” films are a total crapshoot, and the James Bond movies have had more highs and lows than Robert Downey Jr. on a three-week Vegas bender. So the fact that you can go to a Harry Potter film and know that you’re going to get exactly what you’re paying for, in the exact same ratio of murky angst and dead-end plot threads, is actually an impressive achievement in delivering the promised product, which too few movies manage to do.
In this new edition, Radcliffe sports a less unfortunate haircut, and really turns in an engaging performance from a too-often one-note script. All his friends seem more mature and less annoying, though unfortunately neither of the main sidekicks, Hermione and Ron, are given anything to do but play opposite Harry’s sense of isolation and frustration. Alan Rickman (Snape) and Gary Oldman (Sirius Black) have some good scenes, though most of the other key adults get short shrift. Seriously, I know that the plot of the movie is constrained by what Rowling put on the page a few years before, but it does kinda suck to have Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, Ralph Finnes, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon and Maggie Smith all in the same film, and not only does no one but the first two have anything much to do, they’re all almost always forced to do it with Radcliffe and his cohorts. It’s hard not to wish the film would veer hard to the left and just sweep the kids out of the way so that a cast this strong can do some grownup work together.
Still, the way that Harry finds his way out of his self-perceived isolation makes interesting watching, and although both the developments of his enlarged Scooby Gang and especially his romantic entanglement with one — whose name, tellingly, has escaped me utterly — are both underdeveloped. There’s interesting material here among the many loose threads that should’ve been trimmed, and both cast and director make good use of it.
This time the director is David Yates, whose IMDB indicates a British TV director who has never run a film on this scale before. He does well, not only in keeping the film feeling of a piece — albeit a slightly less remarkable piece — with its predecessors, but he seems to get better acting from the core youth cast. Partly this may just be the kids maturing, but clearly Yates, who will return to next year’s sixth chapter, didn’t break anything. Emma Watson, for one, is much improved. She no longer clenches her fists and shouts every line as though sledgehammering railroad ties. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t give her any dialogue that isn’t exposition or plot-pushing business, so it’s hard to tell. But that red-headed Ron Weasley kid is a tenth as teeth-grindingly annoying in this film as in any of the previous four, and if that ain’t growth, I dunno what is.
The trouble with the Harry Potter series is that, apparently by Rowling fiat as well as canny understanding of the film’s core fanbase of obsessive readers, must hew closely to the novels when it might be better to take a “Casino Royale” approach in which the spirit and core conflicts of the book are kept, while much is rearranged and improved to make a picture. The 2006 Bond film was updating a 40-year-old novel that couldn’t possibly have worked on the screen, and a better-edited version of “Order of the Phoenix” might’ve made more satisfying stew of the 900 pages of the book. Hell, they might even have made sense of the crystal dingus, the “prophecy,” which Voldemort appeared to be steering Harry toward, and which, given its singular relation to the Harry/Voldemort axis, all the adults helping Harry should’ve seen coming a mile off. And we might know why it is that those background characters who happily serve Voldemort seem to suffer no punishment or censure when exposed. Or we might not.
Anyway, the uniform standards of the series are such that you can count on loving the movie, or shrugging over it, just as much as you did the previous installments. There’s nothing wrong here that wasn’t wrong in the earlier films, and the acting and much of the dramatic tension seemed improved, so really, it’s a review-proof film. Unless you’ve never seen a Potter film, you already know everything you need to know to decide whether to see it. It’s more like episodic TV, where you tend to count on that steady diet of sameness, than a film series where you at least hope the latest movie will go somewhere grander than the last, as was achieved in “Aliens,” “Star Trek II,” the second “Spider Man” and a handful of other surprising sequels.
For myself, I can’t figure out why I like the movies. I’ve flipped through the novels and you could not pay me to devote a week’s worth of free time to reading one, though friends whose tastes I greatly respect swear by the stuff. Yet I feel compelled to see the films as they come out, liking them and even liking the aspect of disliking parts of them. I think it’s down to the films somehow being more than the sum of its parts. Like X-Men comics (and films) when done right, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Potter series evokes the outsider many of us thought we were, or at least the awkwardness that pretty much no one escaped. Like those predecessors, it melds the isolation and frustration to the idea of a wondrous world of violence and honor and eternal friendship much larger than the workaday world of non-mutants, of daylight, of “muggles,” and it makes us ache to be there. That’s the secret ingredient of the Potter franchise, and in this movie, like the others, when things are done well, that prime ingredient is magnified, and when things are cluttered or off-step, that element anchors us, and leaves us wanting more.