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, âAn illiterate wizard and his goat walk out of a barâŚâ Never heard it? Clearly, David Yates assumes you have. The visual wink to Dumbledoreâs barkeep brother, Aberforth, and the goat he so notoriously performs illegal charms on, is perhaps the most delightfully obscure indication that director Yatesâs 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, itâs about bloody time. Warner Brosâ 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 novelsâ complex characters, wry humor, and leftist ideology. J.K. Rowlingâs 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 Dumbledoreâs inexplicably cold shoulder, OotP offers no refuge for the titular wizard, as even his subconscious becomes a site of struggle.
Itâs difficult not to marvel at what virgin Potter screenwriter Michael Goldenberg accomplishes in his adaptation of OotP, paring down Rowlingâs immense, internalized (and, arguably, least structurally cinematic) tome, working in exposition with conversational ease, and still managing to retain the novelâs 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, âSo, whatâs the deal with this âOrder of the Phoenix?ââ Still, itâs a small price for fans to pay for a film that doesnât slavishly elucidate, for example, Siriusâs (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 âJamesâ in the heat of battle, brutally accomplishes what a clunky exchange about the duoâs lost friendship couldnât 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), âfaithfulnessâ frequently and obtusely equated with each installmentâs (in)ability to capture that elusive âmagicâ critics are quick to invoke but incapable of quantifying. To praise OotPâs faithfulness is to praise its lack of awestruck gaping, as the last traces of Harryâs 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 Rowlingâs own commentary on the sad state of the contemporary news media) to the stagnant 1980s training montage (detailing Harryâs 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 Rowlingâs 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 Rowlingâs prose and fansâ projections to glorious life. Craig and Yates both sculpt the interactive nature of wizarding environs to ultimate cinematic effect, from the juxtaposition of Harryâs whimpers of pain with the mewling of collectible kitten plates lining the walls of Umbridgeâs 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 Londonâs 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 thatâmature. In particular, itâs a relief to see Rupert Grintâs Ron evolve beyond Shaggy and Scoobyâs 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 âLoonyâ Lovegood with equally parts dreamy vacancy and keen insight. One unfortunate side effect of this amiable, naturalistic turn by the filmâs 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 âbatshit crazyâ) appear more campy than malevolent, especially when stacked against Stauntonâs sadism-with-a-smile approach to villainy.
Goldenberg and Yatesâs decision to focus their narrative energy on Umbridgeâs totalitarian presence at Hogwarts, at the expense of clearly articulating the inner workings of the Order, or Severus Snapeâs (Alan Rickman) conflicted role in the barricading of Harryâs mind against Voldemortâs 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 Rowlingâs hero, ranging from the institutional to the intrapersonal. And donât even get me started on the NarglesâŚ