It's hard not to see some good in any "Potter" film, and if you find any deficiencies in this new one, blame it on the source material. Given the movie's time constraints, English director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg stick as closely as possible to J.K. Rowling's book, both a blessing and a curse.
At the end of my review for the last film, "Goblet of Fire," I wrote, "It will be interesting to see what the filmmakers do with the next, longest, book in the cycle, 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,' which I thought was the most ponderous and tedious thing Rowling has yet written." I'm afraid that while this new "Potter" is among the best-looking chapters in the series, it suffers from the same problems that plagued the book. It is not so much a stand-alone picture as it is a transition from one major story strand to the next.
In this regard, "Order of the Phoenix" is much like "The Prisoner of Azkaban." Of that film I wrote, "Seen as a link in the progression of stories, 'Azkaban' works well enough, but taken on its own, it feels rather unfinished and, ultimately, unfulfilling." Same thing here. "Order of the Phoenix" even shares with "Azkaban" the darkest tone yet in a "Potter" film.
"Order of the Phoenix" follow the same basic pattern set down by the previous "Potter" films, with one big exception. You'll remember that we always get young Harry facing an assortment of conflicts with lesser antagonists and then having some kind of showdown at the end with the main bad guy, Lord Voldemort. At the conclusion of "Goblet of Fire," it was a wand fight. This time, however, the major conflict is not so much with ordinary antagonists as it is within Harry himself. Harry is growing up, facing young manhood, and "Phoenix" is more a coming-of-age tale than anything else, with Harry, always the outsider at Hogwarts (and in the conventional world as well), having to learn who he is, who his friends are, and how to deal with life's new challenges, including girls. Then we do get the traditional fight with Voldemort, and the thing ends. We're ready in another year or so to move on to new dangers in book number six, "The Half-Blood Prince," where we get back to the main story line of the series.
Anyway, in "Order of the Phoenix" Harry knows that Voldemort is back on the move, but few people except Dumbledore and some broken-down old wizards believe him. The wizards, once members of the original Order of the Phoenix that formed to combat Voldemort years earlier, reassemble at Sirius Black's house to combat a new Voldemort threat, while Harry himself assembles a group of Hogwarts students (known as Dumbledore's Army) and teaches them magical self defense. Harry's friends encourage him to do this because the Ministry of Magic has just assigned Hogwarts a new teacher for the Defense Against the Dark Arts class, and being ultra politically correct, she refuses actually to teach them anything about defending themselves against the Dark Arts. Meanwhile, the idiot Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), refuses to accept that Voldemort is on the rise and does everything in his power to thwart the good intentions of the new Order and Harry and his followers.
The best thing about the film is that it has only a little over two hours to tell its story, which means the screenplay cut a good deal of padding from Rowling's book. Unfortunately, it still wasn't enough because "Order of the Phoenix" seems to go on forever. Yet, when it's finished, there is the lingering feeling that nothing has really happened.
The fact is that although the filmmakers infuse "Order of the Phoenix" with plenty of magic, there is little magic in the film itself. It's all so grim and dark, with hardly a sliver of the old humor, that it's more than a bit tiring. As a psychological character study, the new movie is head and shoulders beyond anything we've gotten yet from a "Potter" movie. But as fun time at the picture show, the new "Potter" is a pretty merciless affair.
As I say, part of the problem is that the conflicts are almost all internal, rather than external as in the past. Harry's mind torments him with visions of his parents' deaths and Cedric Diggory's demise, as well as his mysterious connection with the Dark Lord. Harry seems actually to see what Voldemort sees, and he doesn't understand why. So, we get to see Harry continuously having nightmares and waking up in a sweat, which isn't exactly the most uplifting way to enjoy a movie.
Another part of the problem, though, stems from the very fact that the screenplay cuts down the book's story so much. With the good, we must accept the bad, which in this case means that while the movie retains most of the book's characters, most of them have hardly any screen time or anything to do. For instance, Helena Bonham Carter plays Bellatrix Lestrange, whom the Ministry locked up in Azkaban for many years and who finally escapes. But for what purpose? To do about two minutes of mischief? Natalia Tena comes in as Nymphadora Tonks and gets, as I remember it, about one line. And Evanna Lynch appears as Luna Lovegood, another outsider like Harry, a sympathetic character about whom we would like to know more. Do we get it? No time.
The old gang are also back, but with only a moment or two for themselves. Fiona Shaw and Richard Griffiths come and go quickly as the Dursleys, this time with no comeuppance. Ralph Fiennes is Lord Voldemort, seen mainly as a caricature. Michael Gambon is Albus Dumbledore, scarcely showing his face until the very end. Gary Oldman is back as Harry's godfather, Sirius Black (and at least we can now see enough of Oldman to recognize this fine actor), the film truncating his part, too, as it does the scenes in his house. Brendan Gleeson and David Thewlis again play Mad-Eye Moody and Remus Lupin, although you'd hardly notice they were there. Jason Isaacs is Lucius Malfoy, evil as ever. Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith are Professors Snape and McGonagall, barely more than window dressing. Robbie Coltrane is Hagrid, even if he's gone missing for half the picture. Katie Leung is Cho Chang, there only to be kissed. And so on. And, of course, the same young people are back, too, now looking a whole lot older: Emma Watson as the faithful Hermione, Rupert Grint as best-pal Ron, and Matthew Lewis as the woebegone Neville Longbottom.
Yet the movie's scene-stealer is newcomer Imelda Staunton as Hogwarts latest teacher, Dolores Umbridge. Forget about Voldemort; Umbridge is the real villain of the piece. Her character is deliciously evil in a smug, self-righteous kind of way, meting out tortuous punishment to anyone who crosses her, all the while believing that her teaching methods are for the good of the children. She's the sort of person who would kill her students to save them. Worse, she's a snitch for the Ministry of Magic and presents a second obstacle for Harry and his followers to overcome.
Still, it's hard to see exactly what they need to overcome, since we never see what Voldemort is really up to. As in the book, the film simply tells us that the Dark Lord seeks a secret prophecy hidden deep in the Ministry of Magic, a prophecy that only Harry can obtain. What it has to do with anything is something I could never decipher from the book; and in the movie, which compresses the idea further, it makes even less sense.
What's more, there are the forever unresolved questions: How is it that after all these years, Dudley (Harry Melling) is still too stupid to know that he shouldn't purposely provoke Harry? How is it that after years of trying to become human, Voldemort still can't produce a nose? And how is it that with all the magic in the world at his disposal, to say nothing of muggle contact lens or laser surgery, Harry still has to wear glasses?
Nevertheless, I quibble. The movie continues to offer much in the way of insight and character development, for Harry at least. After all, we get to see Harry's first kiss, and that ought to be worth something. Furthermore, the film has one of the sweetest, most-affecting closing scenes of any of the "Potter" movies thus far. There continue the delights of Hogwarts itself, with all its fascinating passageways and secret chambers. There's the look of the movie's special effects, always first rate. And there's the motion picture's superb visual qualities--sharpness of detail and excellence of colors--which one can enjoy on any level.
OK, maybe I went into the film with a bias, not having liked the book very much. Guilty as charged. Yet it doesn't change my overall assessment that without a solid story line, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is little more than a stepping-stone in the context of the "Potter" series as a whole. Now that we've gotten it out of the way, we can get on to what should be a much-better installment in "The Half-Blood Prince." 6/10