Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
In the past it was often the Dark Lord’s pleasure to invade the minds of his victims, creating visions designed to torture them into madness. Only after extracting the last exquisite ounce of agony, only when he had them literally begging for death would he finally… kill them.
J.K. Rowling’s “Order of the Phoenix” is my favorite “Harry Potter” novel because it does an terrific job in balancing personal drama, school life, politics, and the encroaching reality that Lord Voldemort is making moves behind the scenes so he will be well-prepared for war against those whom he considers to be inferior by blood. And so it is most disappointing that the film version, this time Michael Goldenberg serving as screenwriter in place of Steve Kloves and David Yates taking on the role of director, comes across cursory, thin, tonally unfocused, and largely uninterested with the more silent but equally critical details in regard to plot and character.
One gets the impression that those at the helm are more interested in delivering spectacle than exploring human stories. Particularly offensive is the limited and unremarkable interactions between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), still on the lam for crimes he did not commit. The actors exude warmth when their eyes meet from across the room, but when these characters begin to speak with one another, conversations are often one-dimensional, dull, repetitive. This lack of connection is especially astounding because Sirius is supposed to be best friends with Harry’s father. There is not once instance in which the screenplay bothers to take the time so that the godfather could recall a cherished memory that involves James and Lily. It shouldn’t have been this way because Harry considers the man as family. By comparison, Harry’s exchanges with Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) in “Prisoner of Azkaban,” however brief, are far richer and emotionally satisfying.
More energy and attention is given to montages: how Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, manages to take over Hogwarts and impose all sorts of preposterous rules to create an illusion of order (so-called “educational decrees” like banning extracurricular clubs or requiring boys and girls to be at least eight inches apart at all times), how Harry forms and trains his fellow students (“Dumbledore’s Army”) so they can defend themselves against those who wish them harm, how Harry’s mind becomes increasingly vulnerable for Voldemort to take advantage of. These are critical to the plot, amusing and curious at times, but they are not executed with insight or flavor.
We are supposed to despise the fascistic, pink-wearing, cat-loving Umbridge but what else is there to the character? Surely someone who wishes to be hold on to control so desperately must have some sort of backstory. What does it mean for Harry to lead his friends? How does this leadership position connect to his feelings of isolation? Does this trigger a change in him? How are the O.W.L. exams (“Ordinary Wizarding Level”) relevant to Harry’s dream of becoming an Auror? What is an Auror? (Harry’s career goal is referenced in the next film “Half-Blood Prince” as it if were brought up in this entry. It wasn’t… curious because the fifth year is when students are forced to think about life after Hogwarts.)
And what about Harry’s Occlumency lessons with Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) who is revealed early on to be a member of the Order of the Phoenix (a group that Dumbledore formed to stand up against Voldemort and his Death Eaters)? Sure, the point is for Harry to be trained so he can learn to defend against those who wish to access his thoughts and feelings, but what about the human aspect—the fact that Harry had never really considered Snape to be an ally and yet now they must work together? Where is the drama that we can bite into? Clearly, we are provided a vanilla Cliff Notes version.
By the time the third act fumbles about, when Harry and his friends decide to venture into the Ministry of Magic’s Department of Mysteries (which apparently is not only easy to find, it takes no effort to break into), it is too late to salvage the picture. On the basis of visuals, I suppose the duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort is impressive. But these figures have been absent from the picture for the majority of its running time so the emotional investment isn’t very high.
If anything, it is a reminder of how boring the students have been using magic. Why aren’t they learning how to summon giant fire serpents or control massive volume of water? Jest aside, I appreciated that this scene shows why Voldemort fears Dumbledore. This fact was referenced since “Sorcerer’s Stone.” Here is the payoff. Had the screenplay bothered to answer more questions that begin with “why” or “how,” it would have given the work deeper substance.