New World Order
by Suzanne Scott

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Dir. David Yates, U.S., Warner Bros.

As the old joke goes, “An illiterate wizard and his goat walk out of a bar…” Never heard it? Clearly, David Yates assumes you have. The visual wink to Dumbledore’s barkeep brother, Aberforth, and the goat he so notoriously performs illegal charms on, is perhaps the most delightfully obscure indication that director Yates’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is not a film that caters to the HP-illiterate or even casual fans of the franchise. Frankly, it’s about bloody time. Warner Bros’ Harry Potter films, despite being spawned from the most pervasively read source texts in recent memory, have all been narratively crippled by awkward exposition and repetition, at the expense of a more nuanced depiction of the novels’ complex characters, wry humor, and leftist ideology. J.K. Rowling’s surly, standoffish antihero (dubbed CAPSLOCK!Harry by many), who polarized fans and critics back in 2003 when Order of the Phoenix was published, might have been softened slightly for the silver screen, but little else has been, making for the most tonally consistent and emotionally resonant film installment to date. Combating a smear campaign, prim politico-turned pedagogical nightmare Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, earning every bit of praise the press has heaped on her for her depiction of pink-swaddled power run amok), and mentor Dumbledore’s inexplicably cold shoulder, OotP offers no refuge for the titular wizard, as even his subconscious becomes a site of struggle.

It’s difficult not to marvel at what virgin Potter screenwriter Michael Goldenberg accomplishes in his adaptation of OotP, paring down Rowling’s immense, internalized (and, arguably, least structurally cinematic) tome, working in exposition with conversational ease, and still managing to retain the novel’s wary view of institutions during (wizarding) wartime. Those living in pop culture caves for the past decade might be forced to whisper a series of nagging, plot-driven questions throughout, some as sweeping as, “So, what’s the deal with this ‘Order of the Phoenix?’” Still, it’s a small price for fans to pay for a film that doesn’t slavishly elucidate, for example, Sirius’s (Gary Oldman) toxic desire for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) to seamlessly take the place of his dead father as his partner in crime. One slip of the tongue, as Sirius accidentally refers to Harry as “James” in the heat of battle, brutally accomplishes what a clunky exchange about the duo’s lost friendship couldn’t hope to approximate.

Praise and criticism of the franchise frequently circulates around questions of faithfulness (Chris Columbus? Too literal; Mike Newell? Too Cliffs Notes; Alfonso Cuaron? Juuuust right), “faithfulness” frequently and obtusely equated with each installment’s (in)ability to capture that elusive “magic” critics are quick to invoke but incapable of quantifying. To praise OotP’s faithfulness is to praise its lack of awestruck gaping, as the last traces of Harry’s childish wonder wither away and magic becomes a tool for survival rather than a mere series of tricks. In lighthearted counterpoint, Yates magically reinvigorates a number of worn filmic tropes, from exposition-laden newspaper headlines (with magically embedded clips, each of them a wry reflection of Rowling’s own commentary on the sad state of the contemporary news media) to the stagnant 1980s training montage (detailing Harry’s tutoring sessions-cum-resistance movement). Even Citizen Kane gets a visual shout-out, as the visage of Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge surveys his cavernous domain from banners on high. Far from feeling derivative, the pastiche echoes the strength of Rowling’s fantasy, honoring the past while remaining distinctly contemporary.

Admittedly, both Yates and Goldenberg find themselves in an advantageous creative position as newcomers to the franchise, with their predecessors fulfilling the task of world building, and their collaborators well trained in the Potterverse. Production designer Stuart Craig, in many ways the true auteur of the franchise, continues to bring Rowling’s prose and fans’ projections to glorious life. Craig and Yates both sculpt the interactive nature of wizarding environs to ultimate cinematic effect, from the juxtaposition of Harry’s whimpers of pain with the mewling of collectible kitten plates lining the walls of Umbridge’s office, to the labyrinthine disorientation of the Department of Mysteries. Likewise, the visual effects team has come to embrace a healthy balance between analog restraint and digital excess, instilling quieter moments (the bothered mutterings of Kreacher the house elf; Harry and Luna finding common ground amongst a herd of thestrals) with the same degree of wonder and weight as their spectacular counterparts (Harry and the Order streaking past London’s Houses of Parliament on broomsticks; the climatic wizarding duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort).

Despite the UK all-star thespian roster the franchise has accrued over the years, OotP is ultimately the first Harry Potter film more reliant on acting chops than spectacle, and is the first to see its maturing stars do precisely that—mature. In particular, it’s a relief to see Rupert Grint’s Ron evolve beyond Shaggy and Scooby’s scaredycat mugging, a joy to watch Matthew Lewis embody an increasingly multifaceted Neville Longbottom, and a squirmy pleasure to watch the perfectly cast Evanna Lynch create social outcast Luna “Loony” Lovegood with equally parts dreamy vacancy and keen insight. One unfortunate side effect of this amiable, naturalistic turn by the film’s young heroes and heroines is that the choices of Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort (fey as ever, brandishing his wand as Holly Golightly might her cigarette holder) and Helena Bonham-Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange (I believe the colloquialism best suited to describe this acting style is “batshit crazy”) appear more campy than malevolent, especially when stacked against Staunton’s sadism-with-a-smile approach to villainy.

Goldenberg and Yates’s decision to focus their narrative energy on Umbridge’s totalitarian presence at Hogwarts, at the expense of clearly articulating the inner workings of the Order, or Severus Snape’s (Alan Rickman) conflicted role in the barricading of Harry’s mind against Voldemort’s advances, is ultimately a wise one. As the remaining two films are regrettably being penned by Steve Kloves (responsible for depoliticizing the first four film adaptations), OotP will likely remain the token Harry Potter film to engage with the veritable Hydra of enemies confronting Rowling’s hero, ranging from the institutional to the intrapersonal. And don’t even get me started on the Nargles…