Friday, 29 May 2015

BLOCKBUSTER: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (UK/ USA, 2007)
Directed by David Yates
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter

In my previous Harry Potter review, I talked about the challenges the film franchise faced when the books began to grow in size. The continuing success of the series, both on the page and on the screen, put pressure on the directors, producers and writers to include as much of the source material as possible to keep the fans happy. While none of the directors after Chris Columbus have been quite so literal-minded in this regard as he was, the desire for fidelity is still present in different ways.

 
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the beginning of what could be called the long, slow consolidation of the franchise. The first of ultimately four efforts to be helmed by David Yates, it approaches the material with neither the need nor the willingness to prove itself, seemingly confident that fans will know enough about the basics at this point that more new stuff can be crammed in. But while the film has a lot of promising or interesting aspects, it is in the final analysis more episodic and less satisfying than its two predecessors, and may be the weakest film in the series since Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
 
It's very easy to lay the blame for this squarely at the feet of the director. Yates was and is primarily a TV director, having made his name on acclaimed series like State of Play and TV films like The Girl in the Cafe. His only previous theatrical offering, The Tichborne Claimant, was notable for its cast but not for its plot or execution. It would be very simple to assume that Yates simply has an episodic mindset, and is, through his training and sensibility, less capable of long-form, cinematic storytelling than Mike Newell or Alfonso Cuarón.
 
Whatever truth may be in these statements, however, they are not by any means the whole truth. An equally bigger problem lies in the fact that the series doesn't feel the need to justify each instalment on its own terms anymore. Up until Goblet of Fire, the future of the series felt up in the air just enough to keep everyone on their toes: Newell's film and Prisoner of Azkaban went the extra mile to prove that they were necessary additions to the canos. By the time Order of the Phoenix came to be made, the Harry Potter fandom had developed to such an extent that there was no longer any need for such healthy self-doubt. While the films don't treat the viewers' intelligence with outright contempt, there is still an underlying unwillingness to bring new people on board, even at such a late stage.
 
There are a lot of things about Order of the Phoenix which are appealing, and any one of them could have the capstone for a film in its own right. There is the tyrannical rule of Delores Umbridge, who descends onto Hogwarts like a terrifying cross between Margaret Thatcher, Mary Whitehouse and Michael Gove. There is the Order of the title, with more details coming forward about Sirius Black and the Malfoys. And there is the overriding conspiracy of denial surrounding Voldemort's return, following the events of the last film.
 
Order of the Phoenix is significant within the series for being the only film not to be scripted by Steve Kloves. Michael Goldenberg, who wrote Contact and the live-action version of Peter Pan, was brought in to replace Kloves after the latter claimed to be physically and mentally exhausted. Kloves' scripts may never have been perfect, falling into several predictable rhythms, but it's probable that he could have marshalled these different and divergent threads into something more coherently satisfying.
 
For most of its running time, Order of the Phoenix concerns itself with the first plotline, focussing on Umbridge taking over Hogwarts and inflicting her pink plague upon the students. Imelda Staunton does a really great job getting across all Umbridge's quirks, showing all that latent rage and frustration burning away under the forced smile of quiet, English passive aggression. Her characterisation of Umbridge as a spineless, narrow-minded, pencil-pushing moral crusader is a breath of fresh air compared to the other teachers of Defence Against the Dark Arts, who have by and large been pale, skulking and slippery types, whose physicalisation so often shows their hand too early.
 
Just as Goblet of Fire did a good job of creating tension through infighting between Harry and his friends, so this film manages to unsettle our feelings of safety by removing all aspects of Hogwarts we have learnt to take for granted. In the previous films, there was always a sense that no matter how bad things got, two things were certain: Dumbledore would be around to help, and Harry wouldsave the day. In Order of the Phoenix both are called into question early on, leaving us uncertain and ever mindful of the gathering evil of Voldemort.
 
By referring back to the denial of Voldemort by those in authority, Yates introduces a theme of the corruption of the wizarding authority, upon which he expands in the later films. Much like the Time Lords in classic Doctor Who, the Ministry of Magic started out as a seemingly benign and benevolent organisation, but is increasingly portrayed as hubristic, all-controlling and, in the Ministry's case, driven as much by fear as Voldemort ultimately is. Umbridge's reign is the first hint we get of the Nineteen Eighty Four-inflected view of the wizarding world, removing another crumb of comfort from the audience for our own good.
 
Further effort is also made to weaken Harry as a reliable protagonist, in this case by his battles with Snape as the latter tries to train his mind against the Dark Lord's influence. Daniel Radcliffe's performance in these scenes demonstrates how far he has matured over the course of the series: he may be playing an easily-angered adolescent, but it's a controlled performance and he responds to Alan Rickman quite superbly. Rickman, naturally, gives as good as he gets, but his best is reserved for his brief, taciturn exchanges with Umbridge.
 
All of this sounds promising - but there's a problem. Because the book is so big, Yates is never able to develop any of these strands to an entirely satisfying degree, and as a result the whole thing begins to feel inconsequential. Even with all the cuts that he and Goldenberg made before filming had even started, the film still feels like a half-told collection of bits which can't entirely stand on their own. Supporting characters feel increasingly like stations we pass through on a long train journey, and by this point the feeling is not one of intrigue at where we are, but growing frustration at how long it is taking us to get us to our destination.
 
It may seem churlish to keep comparing Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings, but here as elsewhere it is a meaningful comparison. Much of the (unwarranted) criticism of The Two Towers focussed on the idea that the film couldn't be taken on its own, with critics (wrongly) claiming that it didn't have a meaningful beginning and end. Order of the Phoenix suffers from this very problem; if you had never seen the first four films, too little of it would make sense for you to enjoy it as a stand-alone. And because so little effort is made to let the casual viewer in, the majority of what happens just washes over you in an unmemorable way.
 
There are other big problems with Order of the Phoenix outside of its structural integrity. There are internal issues too, relating to the storytelling, the pacing and the integration of the action. Despite being the shortest film in the series, at 138 minutes, the film still feels drawn out in places, with Yates taking a long time to cover aspects which could just as adequately be explained in half the time. The Order itself feels underdeveloped as a concept, with Yates giving more time to more visually memorable but relatively frivolous concepts, such as the Room of Requirement - which is, for the record, both unoriginal (the TARDIS) and lazy to the point of utter desperation.
 
The big issue with both the drama and the set-pieces is one of emphasis. While he has some credentials in drama, Yates does not do set-pieces very well, the result being that all the fights which should feel weighty instead feel distracted and unfocussed. The final battle between the Order and the Death-Eaters feels empty and perfunctory, with Yates' camera chasing after the action rather than shaping it. The result is that Sirius Black's death carries no meaning at all, which is a huge shame given Gary Oldman's hard work to make him compelling in Prisoner of Azkaban. The same goes for Voldemort's duel with Dumbledore in the Ministry of Magic: we get a three-minute parade of unremarkable special effects, and then it's back to normal as if nothing ever happened.
 
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a middling instalment in the franchise which contains potential but lacks focus in its execution. Its interesting ideas and the moments in which it does come together ultimately redeem it, as least as a passing diversion, but it is the least essential Harry Potter film since Chamber of Secrets. In the end, it's a mild disappointment, being not being bad enough to put you off, but leaving you with some serious concerns going forward.

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NEXT REVIEW: A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

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