Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Movie Review : Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Book 5 of the Harry Potter series, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”, was not only the longest one in the series but seemed to me would be the most difficult to translate into film. Unlike the readily visualized action set pieces of the preceding installments, the fifth book was much more introspective focusing on the darkening impulses within Harry himself as he dealt with a new school term at Hogwarts. I remembered most distinctly how angry Harry was at everyone all through the book and how everything changed for him and the people around him by the end. The book represented a turning point in the series and set the tone of the books that followed it. Given the density of the material within the 800 plus pages that had to be condensed to fit within the frame work of a film, I had fully expected some details to be cut out from the screen translation. Fortunately, with even the omissions, the latest film adaptation of the Harry Potter franchise recently released still retained the essence of the tome and managed to satisfy the audience.

At the onset of “Harry Potter and the Order to the Phoenix”, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) finds himself having to defend himself against the charge of underage magic usage when he had to use his magic skills to fend off a Dementor attack on himself and his cousin. With the help of Prof Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), Harry was cleared of all charges and allowed back to Hogwarts for the new school term where he finds that most of the students think that he was a liar for claiming that the Dark Lord (Ralph Fiennes) had returned. A victim of a smear campaign by the Ministry of Magic and the subservient media, Harry’s life gets even more desperate with the arrival of Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher as well as the representative of the Ministry of Magic at Hogwarts.

Among the changes that Umbridge implemented was to ignore the student’s need to practice the magic spells they would need to defend themselves with. Umbridge’s interference at Hogwarts forced a resolute Harry to gather his friends including Ron (Rupert Grint), Hermione (Emma Watson), Neville (Matthew Lewis), Ginny (Bonnie Wright) and Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) to form a club where they could practice their defensive magic in defiance of her. Their practice time would later come in handy when they have to face Lord Voldemort’s DeathEaters at the cavernous Ministry of Magic to save Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), and to recover an item before the DeathEaters did for their master. While the students won the day with the help from the older members of the Order of the Phoenix, it was unfortunately a pyrrhic victory for Harry.

The screenplay as written by Michael Goldenberg did have the unenviable challenge of pruning away peripheral events from the book to fit into the film’s runtime. While this meant losing some of the memorable beats from the book, overall I felt they he did a good job retaining the feel of the book. Being more introspective than the previous book meant that story pacing would be a slight issue as the characters would often stop to reflect what they were feeling. For better or for worse, this was removed from the movie by editing it in a much faster pace than the original material. I wished, however, that they could have retained the sense of growing resentment that Harry had against Dumbledore as described in the book. That change in the character always felt as a major growing up point for the character and a major milestone in his life when Harry discovers that even Dumbledore was not infallible.

Given the nature of the storyline, the action focused more on the students rather than the teachers or the magical environment around them All of the returning main cast seemed to be more comfortable in every succeeding film of the franchise and their familiarity with the character shows in their performance. Daniel Radcliffe (filling out nicely) brings sufficient angst to the character albeit it being a lot more understated compared to his character in the book. I also sorely missed the heighten distrust that threatened to drive a wedge between the 3 main characters as we saw in the book. Without that conflict, the relationship between Hermione and Ron with Harry felt slightly underdone. Most of the existing teaching staff who returned for this installment also suffered from less exposure due to the original storyline being more focused on Harry and therefore had substantially less screen time than they did before.

New characters seen in this installment delightfully added more substance to the tapestry of the franchise. The utterly sweet but ultimately sadistic Dolores Umbridge was played brilliantly by Imelda Staunton left behind a very memorable performance. While not as physically repulsive as detailed in the book, her willingness to take very extreme measures to ensure the students cooperation was fully realized on screen. No less memorable was Evanna Lynch’s ability to realize the ethereal and not-all-there spaciness of Luna “Loony” Lovegood as detailed in the book. While most of the DeathEaters were kept in masks with limited screen time, Helena Bonham Carter stood out among them as quite memorable especially her being able to present both craziness and sexiness in the package of Bellatrix Lestrange which we should be seeing more of in the next installment.

For the most part, the production value for the film was quite high especially with the impressive new black tiled underground Ministry of Magic set where the climactic battle between Voldemort and Dumbledore took place. No less impressive was the final fight scene between the students and the DeathEaters in the prophecy room where we finally get to see dueling wizards at their fullest. Unfortunately the same could not be said for the Order Advance Guard flight over the Thames at the beginning of the film. A fellow blogger mentioned that it looked like something that came off from the old Superman movie and I whole heartedly agree with him on that point. The CGI effect here was not to the standard that we have seen before in the franchise and it really stood out especially with later CGI scenes.

Overall, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” was on par with the other entries of the franchise. It is definitely much darker than it’s predecessors but it reflected the turmoil inherent in soul of the titular character. Things would only get darker from this point on as audiences who have read the next book in the series would attest so bemoaning the departure from the much cheerier earlier films would be a moot point. This is now about Harry Potter growing up realizing that the magic skills that he learnt at Hogwarts was not all for play. They were all on the eve of a civil war between the Dark Lord’s forces and the forces of the Order of the Phoenix. This film chronicled that turning point admirably and a worthy addition to the series that long time fans would enjoy.

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