This was originally posted on my livejournal blog: http://beowulfaz.livejournal.com
July 2007 is clearly the month that Jo built, the month of Harry Potter, the summer of wizards. So it's hard to know where to begin a review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when the hype for the film has permeated the atmosphere and may quite literally be a factor in global warming. I think I'll begin with a rather mundane or Muggle opening: Wow!
This is not a film for those ignorant of the wizarding world (even though it begins harshly in the desert of the real). While it is not necessary to have read the novel to get the film, you definitely need to have seen the previous movies at least. In a fashion similar to Goblet of Fire, the film condenses about two hundred pages of exposition into about fifteen minutes. I think that if Michael Goldenberg (who has taken over script duties from Kloves) had added additional exposition (adding in a line here and there to state which professor is which and what a muggle is or even who Voldemort is or Cedric was) the film would be fifteen minutes longer. And it would be fifteen heavy minutes. Other critics have commented that ten more minutes of the Department of Mysteries and the wizard battles would have been well-deserved, and I have to agree there. The final confrontation is simply so good, that I want more. It's very similar to the maze in Goblet of Fire, where so much magic is lost to expedite the story.
As a film, I feel that it shares more in common with the Prisoner of Azkaban than Goblet (I'm not even including the first two in the discussion--Christopher Colombus produced two children's movies that were too childlike). Goblet, with the four challenges of the Triwizard Tournament has a natural film pacing which mirrors that "Plot Arc of Action" I draw on the board at the start of the year in Freshmen English. Both Prisoner and Order are on a slow ascension to much greater climaxes. Largely this is due to the focus shifting to the students and their relationships. The trio have amazing chemistry, and the subplot of Harry's romance with Cho is beatifully developing (plus you can really see Ginny Weasley seething under her skin in the corners of the screen).
For only the second time in the Potter franchise, the acting seems to soar which is necessary for the story of the Order. Daniel Radcliffe as Harry is simply brilliant, at times full of adolescent rage, adolescent confidence (or arrogance), and adolescent confusion. Emma Watson acts more with the character of Hermione than with her eyebrows, and Rupert Grint exudes Ron's character, even though the script gives him so little to do (sorry Weasley is not our king). Their almost flirting is well-played, and the scene where Hermione explains how girls have actual contradictory emotions is just as funny as it reads in the novel. All of the returning players are given opportunities to shine in different ways; one of my favorites is Neville Longbottom (played by Matthew Lewis). Initially, I hated Jo's concept of the fat kid who is the target of the school bullies and never does anything right. The dimension Jo gives to Neville in this book and Lewis' performance make you feel so much more for him. The scene in particular when Neville and Harry stare at the picture of the original Order and their lost parents is movingly filled with pathos creating a tremendous empathy for the motivations of both of the characters.
Gary Oldman, as Sirius Black, undergoes a very different transformation in this film than in the book. We get to see Sirius become the caring godfather, a transformation which occurs in the fourth novel but lacking from the fourth film. His death is much more touching than the scene in the text, in part because Oldman's performance has created an almost palpable emotional connection between Harry and Sirius. I began to tear up as Harry stayed by Sirius' side while fighting Malfoy. At that moment he calls Harry by his father's name, and then he is snuffed out by Bellatrix. The timing is precise and poignant.
Of course, much of the film's strength comes from two new characters (no not Tonks and Shacklebolt): Luna Lovegood and Dolores Umbridge. Newcomer Evanna Lynch's performance evokes feelings of wonder, wisdom, empathy, and oddity. Luna is one of those rare truth-speakers, and Lynch's characterization how easily society can ostracize those who are too honest in our world. She bonds with the Thestrals, the creatures of death, and the scene where she offers both an apple and a raw steak is disturbingly sympathetic in both its cuteness and creepiness. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Imelda Staunton is frightening as the pink-clad facist, Umbridge. While she is not toad-like as described in the pink, Staunton's smile becomes one of her effective weapons as she terrorizes the student body, grinning fiercely all the while. Her office and the torture sequence with the pain-bringing quill is shot perfectly, and I could feel the rest of the audience grimacing with me.
Most of the plot of the film follows Harry's rebellion from Umbridge's dictatorship. I love Hermione's line to explain the Room of Requirement (which is first mentioned in passing in the novel of the Goblet of Fire), as Hogwarts itself trying to help the students. That one line adds to the sense of urgency and need. Goldenberg and new director, David Yates, also chose to incorporate an interesting visual motif with the Daily Prophet newspaper and the political press conferences of the Minister of Magic. I kept thinking of what a veiled indictment of the war on terror this was, and it worked to show the dangerous possibilities of when the press is complicit in an administration's attempts to put forth a lie. (How many people think Saddam was directly involved with 9-11? Sorry, had to be said, again). While they eliminate a fantastic scene of Harry's rebellion when he tells his story to Rita Skeeter to be published in The Quibbler (Luna's father's tabloid), the power of the press is felt a force that doesn't just inform public opinion, but creates it.
What I enjoyed most in the end of the film is not just the tremendous set design, wand choreography, or special effects. Goldenberg and Yates elect to extend the moment when Voldemort possesses Harry, and it works quite effectively. The sequence serves as the capstone to the metaphor they have built throughout the film. Harry's angst, temper, and moodiness are not just signs of Holden-esque adolescent funk, but a real question of Voldemort's influence on Harry's soul. It is almost like a scene from The Empire Strikes Back: will Harry who has suffered so much give in to his hatred, or will he remember the love and friendship which forms the spiritual bonds of community? That sequence touched me much more than any of the scenes that followed in the novels denoument.
Considering that Yates is directing The Half-Blood Prince, I wonder what he will do when the story doesn't have to focus 100% of the time on Harry. Plus, who will they get for Slughorn?