Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Yates, 2007)

Spoilers ahead.

Perhaps it was inevitable what with the new book and all- Pottermania infesting my brain- but to these eyes, this latest screen adaptation of J.K. Rowling's big-selling series was easily the best yet. My deranged brain naturally acredits this astonishing realization- after all, Order of the Phoenix was the longest book, and this is the shortest film so far- to the change in screenwriter: regular Potter hack scribe Steven Kloves has taken a film off and into his place stepped Michael Goldenberg, who, unlike Kloves, pulls off the paring-down of plot superbly- sure, there are things missing, but I couldn't think of anything major that had been lost (besides a few egregious errors late on, but we'll get to that later) and I was happy to see very little of Kloves' trick of ending scenes as though he'd left his computer in the middle of a scene and simply abandoned it for the next one on his return.

Goldenberg, however, isn't the only newcomer onboard, and, indeed, it seems to be the raft of new faces, both on and off screen, that make Order of the Phoenix so surprisingly strong. Surprise choice for director was David Yates, a tv director thus far most notable for crime series State of Play, the notorious C4 drama Sex Traffic, and political romance The Girl in the Cafe. On that basis, the choice of Yates (now signed up for Potter 6, The Half-Blood Prince, due at the end of 2008) seems strange for a blockbuster series about a wizard, but, perhaps more than ever this time around, J.K. Rowling's work proves itself deeper and more globally in-tune than onlookers might think. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), having witnessed the return of nemesis Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) at the end of the last film, is plagued both day and night- his dreams are a fragmented mess, torturous remembrances of the death of Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson) and mysterious pictures of the Ministry of Magic leading him somewhere dangerous; and, harassed by his cousin's gang of yobs, the relatives are attacked by Dementors, leading to Harry needing to save the day by use of magic and leading to him being sent to trial before the Minister (Robert Hardy) himself.

The Ministry is where the stellar work of production designer Stuart Craig comes into full, walloping force. Situated beneath the "Muggle" London, the entrance is a familiar circular tunnel (that'll be why the underground was closed off, then), the central space lorded over by intimidating gold statues, and an enormous, Hitler-ish banner of the Minister from ceiling to floor. The Ministry is not, as any citizen would wish, a pleasant place to be: instead, it's an all-too-fitting shining black, eerily accented by white edges, making the walls gleam disturbingly. The Ministry, see, doesn't believe Harry's story, refusing Hogwarts' headmaster Albus Dumbledore's (Michael Gambon) pleas to act. Dumbledore's trickery gets Harry cleared, but, not only will Dumbledore not listen to Harry's questions, Hogwarts is subject to a new teacher: Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), Ministry official, takes that ever-open post of Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, and slowly takes over the school.

Order of the Phoenix is aloft with political currents, from Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione's (Emma Watson) secret rebellion in the form of secret student organization Dumbledore's Army, to the alarming sight of Voldemort in a slick corporate suit (no mere robes for him). I don't mean to credit the film with aspirations it does not have- this is, after all, entertainment- but Yates and Goldenberg cleverly adapt Rowling's work into a tight, witty blockbuster, not overselling the ideas or trying to expell them. And, will wonders never cease, but finally we seem to have a harmonious union between magic and modern teen culture- never is magic hammered into our heads, as Chris Columbus felt the need to do, but neither do the students constantly run around in their own clothes. This is Hogwarts as I imagined it, a meeting place between old-fashioned private school and the influx of modern existance.

The film, as I've yet to mention, is sadly not perfect: it takes a while to get going, rather too flashly in the opening Dementor sequence and too speedy as it moves to Grimmaud Place (Order headquarters, a dirty and dark terrace that's nevertheless cosy, and, again superbly imagined by Stuart Craig- give the man an Oscar, says I) and barely pauses to introduce Kingsley Shacklebolt (George Harris), Tonks (Natalia Tena, sparkling) and the rest of the Order. There are also a few too many missteps in the explosive final act: getting straight to the heart of the prophecy-hunt I can forgive, but, not only is "the veil" not explained, the fatal mistake occurs in the death: not yet has it actually been confirmed that Sirius (Gary Oldman) actually died, given the mysterious circumstances of his "death", but Goldenberg makes it all too explicit. I can only hope they consulted J.K. there, though given the newsbite on the near-exclusion of Kreacher, I do not hope in vain.

But back to the positives. The ever-expanding cast is good as ever, from the awe-inducing elders- Maggie Smith and Emma Thompson are superb in their brief dalliance with the Umbridge-plot, Jason Isaacs is the picture of silky sleaze as Lucius Malfoy, Gary Oldman is warm and protective as Sirius, and Alan Rickman is a delight as he reels off his lines with a kind of bemused weariness- to the improved youngsters- Rupert Grint is solid background, Emma Watson settles in nicely after a worrying first scene, Bonnie Wright (as Ginny) gears up well for her big part next film, and Daniel Radcliffe proves disarmingly adept at portraying Harry's angry angst, although he's most impressive when taking passionate charge of his new "army".

But, as you knew we'd come back to, it's the newcomers that truly delight. Helena Bonham Carter is perhaps the most spot-on casting yet as the unhinged Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange, Tim Burton's influence in full wild flourish as she mercilessly taunts and attacks our heros, laughing with frightening mania. Meanwhile, Imelda Staunton plays a distinctly different but perhaps even scarier type of villain, a terrier dressed in a fuschia sweater and angelically interrupting Dumbledore with a delightful fake cough. She potters around the school with a deadly smile, a poisonous vindictiveness behind her meowing decorative dishes. She'd most likely waltz off with the entire film if it weren't for our freshest new face. I always loved Luna Lovegood in the books, and feared for her appearance on-screen, but never fear: Evanna Lynch is superb, capturing all Luna's eery weirdness and mysterious, lulling voice, ably managing to put across the undercurrent of untortured tragedy within Luna, and it's a pleasure to see just how much she's actually allowed on-screen.

So, in the end, what is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix? It's not as good as the book; but then, were you really expecting it to be? It's the best of the summer blockbusters thus far; so go and see it. It's the best of the Harry Potter series so far; it's probably back down from here. It's better than I thought it would be; so that's good, isn't it?

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