Figure this one out: Order of the Phoenix is the longest book in the series, and yet it’s the second shortest of the movies, just above the last one, which was really half a movie in the first place. One might wonder how it was able to cram over 800 pages in just over two hours, but the dirty little secret of the fifth and sixth Harry Potter books is that not a lot happens. Book six is more concerned with setting up the final chapter than anything else, and book five is mainly one of atmosphere. There isn’t a mysterious caper at the center. It’s largely an internal story, where we find Harry at his moodiest and most turbulent. More than any of the other stories, it’s about the transition to adulthood.
The most distressing thing about Order of the Phoenix is that quite apart from the threat of a newly-returned Lord Voldemort, Harry and the rest of our heroes are under attack from within. The Ministry of Magic, always assumed to be at least a theoretically positive institution, has declared a silent war on Harry and Dumbledore. There’s a real sense of betrayal when you realize that the adults you thought you trusted are just as frail and venal as everyone else. It spills over not only into Harry’s schoolmates, but into Harry himself. He’s worried that his connection to Voldemort is an omen of his own fallenness, that he’s increasingly not who he thought he was.
The film of Order of the Phoenix is something of an odd duck. There are some things that it does so well. It’s captures those mercurial teenage years much more effectively than Rowling ever did. In the book, Harry spends so much of his time yelling at the other characters that some fans know him as “caps lock Harry.” The movie plays it with a much lighter touch, and is far more effective for it. Daniel Radcliffe acts on such an even keel normally that just a little aggressive edge is very noticeable. More than the other stories, this one relies on the students in the school. As the adults are rendered powerless by the Ministry of Magic, the kids all step up, both in the story and in the film. It’s amazing how spot-on the casting was, especially since almost all of these kids were cast when they were about 9 years old.
Now is also a good time to admit that the Ministry of Magic, as visualized in this movie, is one of my very favorite sets in the entire movie series. It doesn’t look exactly like I pictured it in the book, but that’s fine because what’s on the screen is even better. It’s like a subway station crossed with the Capitol rotunda, with windows that seem to extend into forever. I love the rows of fireplaces with people spilling out of them, and I love the slick black stones that cover the floors and walls. It’s the perfect setting for the wonderful final battle between Dumbledore and Voldemort. That particular battle is one that never really worked for me in the book, but it’s portrayed with such force and on such a scale that I am thrilled every time I see it.
In fact, Order of the Phoenix is at its best when it focuses on the big setpieces. The opening scene, as Dudley and Harry are chased by dementors, is wonderfully done. The final confrontation in the Hall of Prophecies looks like a dream, especially as the death eaters start to appear in coils of smoke. And of course, there’s the joyous burst when we get to see the Weasley twins make their grand exit from Hogwarts. It’s a favorite scene of many fans in the book, and while the movie doesn’t devote nearly as much time to showing the scope of their antics, it still makes me want to cheer.
But Order of the Phoenix also has a couple of fumbles, most of which revolve around Dolores Umbridge. This isn’t the fault of Imelda Staunton, who plays her with palpable malice. It’s more the way her rise to power is portrayed in the movie. The endless stream of edicts from the Ministry of Magic is something of a dark joke in the book, but here it’s played in a montage that treats everything with a little too much comedy to really drive home the situation. Most of the edicts revolve around silly stuff like breaking up kissing couples and tucking in shirt-tails with a wand. That’s all well and good, but it has the effect of making Umbridge much less of a personal threat to Harry, and more of an annoyingly strict teacher. She’s still an effective villain, but she feels a little drained of her potency.
Of course, that all changes when Umbridge takes over the role of headmaster. The students are suddenly silenced in the corridors, trudging everywhere. The silliest part here is the room full of students writing with Umbridge’s special quills, while Umbridge sits in front of them all on, and I’m not kidding, a throne. The music is so ominous that it’s a wonder she doesn’t lean back, cackle maniacally, and grow a mustache just so she can twirl it.
But it’s saying something that the rest of the movie isn’t really held back by this. New director David Yates sees that the clouds are gathering, and films everything with only just enough of that early-installment whimsy to keep it from being oppressive. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, in his one attempt at a Harry Potter script, has a keen sense of what drives the story and what can be let go. Most importantly, the movie captures that theme of adolescent angst very well, and it sells the visuals so perfectly that I can live with a diminished Umbridge. Yates returned to direct the rest of the Potter movies, and while this one feels a little like a tune-up in places, I can see why they kept him on board.
- The death of Sirius has never shaken me here like it did in the book. Part of that is that in the end we never really did see much of Gary Oldman in the role.
- I’ve heard some fans complain about how all of the wizards can apparently fly. I hear what they’re saying, but I think this falls into DM;LC (doesn’t matter; looks cool).
- Can anyone explain to me where that enormous clock pendulum actually is? I think it’s moved around whenever the background needs to be spiced up.
- Evanna Lynch, who here plays Luna Lovegood, was an enormous fan of the books before she was ever cast. She actually corresponded with Rowling around the time the original book was written. She plays the part so well that I could swear Rowling had her in mind when she wrote the book.
- The Room of Requirement is opened the same way Zack Snyder’s Superman accomplishes anything: hit it hard enough.
- For those who don’t remember, this movie came out in the summer of 2007. This was also around the time the final book was released. It was, to put it mildly, a hullabaloo.
- This movie was also the last midnight showing that I went to. I don’t miss them.