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Non-Review Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Truth be told, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has a lot of problems. It’s structurally the weakest of the films, existing as a bridge between what came before and what follows – but ultimately feels like treading water. One gets the sense that the ruthless editing that made Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire work so well was sorely missing here. It literally feels more like a collection of subplots rather than a movie in its own right. And then there’s the ending, which is ridiculously weak, but also somewhat undermines the threat the last film spent so long building up.

It's not a knock-out success...

The movie feels heavy. It feels weighted down, as if there’s darkness lurking in every corner – and, to an extent, I suppose that’s the case. Even the opening scene, featuring Harry human relatives, is among the darkest in the series as it becomes clear that the mortal world is no longer safe for Harry. He can’t go home and have a normal life during the summer. “It’s changing out there,” Hagrid observes, “just like last time.” There’s a genuine sense of that, as another character describes a dementor attack “as though all the happiness had disappeared from the world.” That definitely feels like it’s the case.

There’s relatively little light in this instalment – perhaps even less than we’d see in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. There are moments of wit and levity, but they’re few and far between. Even this instalment’s most bright and cheerful character, the new Defences Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge, is not necessarily a good guy. It’s overwhelming, and clearly what director David Yates intended, but it does feel like it’s just a little bit too much too fast. Where’s the enjoyment? Where’s the magic? Where’s the zest? Indeed, the following film would make a conscious attempt to insert a bit more colour into the series, and I think it does remarkably well.

Bewitching...

The character of Dolores Umbridge is a remarkably fascinating creation from Rowling, and she’s actually one of the movie’s stronger assets. Obviously racist and more than a little bit sinister, she’s always clad in bright pink and sporting a cheerful demeanour. She’s another of the series’ delightful British characters, evoking memories of Mary Whitehouse, the great British moral crusader. Umbridge insists on proper dress and decorum, and on teaching her class in purely academic terms. “Progress for the sake of progress must be discouraged,” she assures the assembled masses, not without a hint of Orwellian charm.

There’s very much the spectre of the old educational debates about Umbridge, who basically engages in corporal punishment, and has been reassigned to address “the seriously falling standards at Hogwarts school.” Her curriculum is driven by rote-based learning aimed at the end-of-year exams rather than any practical or real-world knowledge. “It is the view of the Ministry that a theoretical knowledge will be sufficient to get you through your examinations,” she assures the students, “which after all, is what school is all about.” She’s basically every horrible old teacher we ever heard our parents bemoan, and one of her educational decrees includes, “Girls and boys are not permitted to be within eight inches of each other.”

The wiz kids...

However, the problem with Umbridge is how she fits with the rest of the film. She’s admittedly a very dangerous character, effectively organising a squad of Hitler Voldemort Youth inside the walls of the school, but Rowling clearly wrote her as a somewhat gleefully ridiculous character (and Imelda Staunton perfectly plays her as such). She’s a larger than life pantomime villain, and the movie seems distinctly uncomfortable with that idea. The desaturated film seems to shout at the audience to take all this magic stuff seriously, while the actors and script seem to be having a bit more fun. Both approaches aren’t mutually exclusive – Umbridge can be terrifying and over-the-top at the same time, and the film could be fun and tense as well. However, it all seems rather weighted down.

It’s a shame, because the lighter stuff, the broad satire, works remarkably well. In particular, the sequences at the Ministry of Magic, which have always been portrayed as a bunch of blundering bureaucrats, are over-the-top but also intense and powerful. The way that the Ministry attempts to undermine Harry’s appeal by rescheduling his hearing at the last minute (and trying to ensure Dumbledore doesn’t find out) calls to mind the show-trials of any number of corrupt regimes, but it’s also a place where little old ladies can be called to testify at a moment’s notice. It’s insane and illogical and counter-intuitive and all very British, which is – I’d argue – where the series works at its very best.

Voldemort nose something is up...

Indeed, there are wonderful hints at the Ministry trying to regulate the magical world out of existence, revising the borders with the centaurs, for example, and becoming  “twisted and warped by fear” to the point where a Ministry-appointed official is willing to consider a brutal “enhanced interrogation” (read: torture) spell on a young student. It’s moments like these when the film really comes alive, but they are scattered too far apart to really keep the audience going amid all the boring and pointless teen angst going on.

Another major problem the movie faces is its central cast. The three lead actors were all hired when they were very young, and so it was always going to be sink-or-swim as they grew up. Not every promising child actor turns into a magnificent talent. To be frank, I’m not sure if the problem lies with the leads or with the script. The script tells us that everything is darker and more serious, but also insists that we pay attention to more teen angsty nonsense. In a movie already over-plotted, that stuff should have been cut straight away.

Guess whose Black...

So Daniel Radcliffe is placed in the really awkward position of having to play a teenager with the weight of the world on his shoulders who must still act like every other teenage boy in fiction. So he has to convince us that he’s as concerned about stopping Voldemort as he is about snogging a dead guy’s girlfriend. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a teenager, and its to Radcliffe’s credit that he does as well as he does, but the three leads simply can’t hold the film together. In particular, Emma Watson has this awful stilted delivery and somehow manages to over-act with her eyebrows. Unless you are Jack Nicholson, that’s not a particularly convincing approach. Rupert Grint is actually really good, but he has the weakest material to work with.

One of the consequences of making the film so much darker and keeping all the soap opera stuff is that it feels surreal that the kids are the only people who ever seem to do anything. I know that Dumbledore is clearly planning and Hagrid has a mission, but it seems like Harry and his two mates are the guys doing all the legwork. “Did you actually believe, or were you truly naive enough to think that children stood a chance, against us?” Lucius Malfoy asks, and he has a point. Teenage wizards, magical creatures and hidden rooms are one thing, but showing us a bunch of emotionally immature teenagers doing the heavy-lifting does strain the suspension of disbelief just a little bit.

Calling this secret society to order...

Aside from all this, there’s the fact that the film really doesn’t add up to much. Really, the climax of this film is a duel between Voldemort and Harry (with Dumbledore). The climax to the last film was a duel between Voldemort and Harry. The only real difference this time is that there are a few new supporting cast members, some other supporting cast members die and that all the characters believe what the audience knew to be true at the end of the previous film. It’s hardly a huge amount of progress in the on-going narrative, and the follow-up did quite well to keep Voldemort in the shadows. It feels like relatively little has changed, and we’re no closer to the end than when we started.

You could argue that it’s the journey rather than the destination that is the point, but the movies from here on out are more consciously driven by this over-arching plot than by characters or whimsy. This is what the movies are about now, and it feels like the franchise is consciously treading water. In fact, one could almost skip directly to the next film and only miss one key supporting character’s death. It’s a good death, but perhaps not good enough to justify two-and-a-half hours.

Crazy old witch...

On the other hand, the cast do really try to make the very most out of their material. In particular, Gary Oldman is used better her than he has since his arrival in the series in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Helena Bonham Carter is a wonderful addition to the ensemble, cackling like a classic witch as she whirls around the room. She’s certainly one of the more memorable supporting actresses, despite never really getting too much characterisation beyond “is evil, does magic.” Jason Isaacs is always under-rated, and enjoys his chance to chew some scenery as Lucius Malfoy. And Michael Gambon continues to grow progressively stronger in the role of the wise old wizard Dumbledore.

A nice strong central theme might have worked to tie everything together, but the movie can’t even seem to manage that. It suggests a host of interesting ideas, like the notion of the connection between Voldemort and Harry. Harry wonders if he has the same darkness inside him, prompting him to wonder if he could be like Voldemort. Sirius is quick to correct him, “Now I want you to listen to me closely. You’re not a bad person. You’re a very good person, who bad things have happened to. Do you understand? Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We have all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the power we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” The observation might carry a bit of weight if Voldemort had shown a hint of goodness. Or if Harry had ever shown a hint of malice operating under his own faculties. As it stands, in the Potterverse, there are two very clearly defined paradigms of “good people and Death Eaters”with Harry and his enemy standing at opposite ends.

Harry's going Luna...

There’s also the idea of love, which runs through the series, but is rather ham-fistedly inserted into the climax of this film, as Harry assures Voldemort, “You’re the weak one. And you’ll never know love, or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.” As much as I admire the world view, wasn’t Voldemort resurrected by his followers in the previous instalment?  And, while the vast majority follow him out of fear, there are others who harbour something more for the Dark Lord. Sure, they’re a bunch of nutbag psychos, and “love” isn’t the exact word I’d use, but he clearly fills some sort of emotional void for some people – “psychotic co-dependence” is as apt a description as any. Being entirely honest, while we can argue about the differences between the two concepts (one is good, the other is not), there’s no denying that there are a core group of followers who do have something very close to “love” for Voldemort.

While Rowling’s story is built around the idea of love and how it sustains and supports us, the problem is that the sequence is incredibly shallow and more than a little bit stilted, as is Harry’s somewhat optimistic conclusion that he and his mates have something Voldemort doesn’t: “something worth fighting for.” I’m not going to claim that it’s a worthy goal in a conflict of this scale, but I can see what Voldemort is fighting for, and – while it might not be “love”– complete and utter control of the world is probably something that he and his colleagues are going to fight for.

Sparks fly...

Of course, that sequence might not be so frustrating if the movie actually had a point or did anything. As it stands, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix seems to exist to make some standard criticisms of the British education system and just eat up space until the next chapter arrives in cinemas – neither of which in necessarily a laudable goal.

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