Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)–****
The Prisoner of Azkaban, which is arguably the worst film in the Harry Potter series, was the third movie produced and the last one to have remnants of the original two films, Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. It was the last film to feature John Williams’s original music and the last film with Chris Columbus, the franchise’s first director, attached to it in any way. I blame the transitional nature of that third film for its failure.
With the exception of screenwriter Steven Kloves sticking around for Goblet of Fire, that fourth installment was a completely new vision for the series. Now audiences are treated to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which not only takes that new direction to a higher level, but also stands out as the first Harry Potter film that can be considered important.
How could Harry Potter be important? Well let’s make the case for some contemporary political subtext. A complicit media (The Daily Prophet) is helping Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), head of the wizarding world’s Ministry of Magic, funnel misinformation about the return of Harry Potter’s (Daniel Radcliffe) archnemisis, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). In the fourth film, Potter witnesses the reincarnation of Lord Voldemort, easily the most evil wizard to ever walk the face of the earth. Instead of accepting Potter’s dire alert, Fudge denies the return and smears Potter, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and anyone who would be willing to defend Potter through the media. (Fudge reminds be of someone. Who could that be?)
In order to watch Potter and Dumbledore during the new school year, Fudge installs his loyal crony Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) in Hogwarts as the new defense of the dark arts professor. Instead of teaching kids to actually protect themselves, Umbridge only teaches defense theory. It’s the wizarding world’s version of abstinence-only education.
Instead of sitting back, Potter, with the encouragement of his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), begins teaching willing students dark arts defense in the secret Room of Requirement. As his group, called Dumbledore’s Army, begins to strengthen, Umbridge and the Ministry tighten their grip on the school. Potter, however, knows that Voldemort and his followers, called Death Eaters, are planning a large scale war. The group of anti-Voldemort folks, The Order of the Phoenix, will need all the help they can get from the youngest and the bravest wizards.
It’s been a while since I read The Order of the Phoenix, but just looking at the massive novel on my shelf (the longest in the series) makes me know that there were cuts to the story when turned into the shortest Harry Potter film. For the first time, I’m not worried about the cuts or comparisons to the novel. After four films, the series, more so than even the character, has come of age. With its newfound maturity, The Order of the Phoenix looses the sentimentality that permeates the novels and the previous adaptations. Instead we are treated to drama without pretense or pandering.
In addition to drama and political subtext, The Order of the Phoenix boasts what may be the biggest, most colorful cast the series has ever seen. Staunton as Umbridge and Helena Bonham Carter as Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange are noteworthy standouts. The downside may be that the story doesn’t allow us to delve into the all characters, but the brave, bold adherence to a strict dramatic adventure narrative helps first time Potter director David Yates tell the story without getting lost on tangents. When we finally make it to what can only be described as the epic climax, a battle between Death Eaters and The Order, this fifth Harry Potter film has established itself as the greatest mainstream fantasy film since Empire Strikes Back.