Saturday, July 14, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (David Yates, 2007)

Harry Potter has begun to truly grown up and with him the film series, for better or for worse, has outgrown the limiting drama of school life and childish make-believe into the realm of disenchantment. The awed faces of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his cohorts at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry have matured and become suspicious of adult authority, hardened by successively twisted Defense against the Dark Arts teachers and the full return of the big baddie, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). At the conclusion of the previous installment, Goblet of Fire, Harry watched a fellow student die at the hands of the Dark Lord, a repetition of his earliest trauma of watching his parents die at the same hands. This Freudian complication also serves to further distance Harry from the reigning adult world when the Ministry of Magic deems the student’s death an accident and resolutely denies the return of Voldemort. In the opening scene of Order of the Phoenix, Harry practices his wizardry in a life-or-death situation against the wraithlike Dementors in the Muggle (non-magic) world, breaking the rules of the Ministry and in the process severing all ties to its bureaucratic regime. With an ultimate evil out there, practical application in the real world trumps theory in the classroom, and this is comically played out when the pink-suited iron fist of Dolores Umbridge (the sweetly sinister Imelda Staunton) rules over Hogwarts as an instrument of the Ministry. Magical standardized testing and overzealous punishments are her specialties, and the educational parallels with our current world become all too clear, as do surprisingly conservative jabs at contemporary politics; the Ordinary Wizarding Level (OWL) tests, although based on British secondary exams, could be called “No Wizard Left Behind,” and the Ministry’s collective head in the sand concerning the ultimate evil causes Harry to go it alone with his young “coalition of the witching.” But although Umbridge’s autocratic rule concerns much of the film’s plot, her fate and that of her administration are poorly handled, betraying a kind of weariness for Hogwarts hi-jinks and a stronger fascination for Harry’s psychological development.

Despite being the eponymous hero of the series, Harry has thus far had to share major screen time with his fellow students and teachers, and Daniel Radcliffe has been clearly overshadowed by various British acting heavyweights and modern luminaries including Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane, and Emma Thompson; Order of the Phoenix somewhat changes that. Fine supporting turns by Staunton and Evanna Lynch as the dotty, pale outsider Luna Lovegood are tempered by the unfortunate interchangeability of nearly everyone else but Radcliffe, with recognizable faces like David Thewlis and Helena Bonham Carter shown then discarded. However, this film is finally Harry’s showcase and provides Radcliffe an emotionally dark dimension that has been hardly hinted at. Already angered by the Ministry’s worthlessly stringent rules and its denial of Voldemort’s return, Harry is betrayed not once but thrice by his male authority figures: headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) disappears in a fiery puff in a vain attempt to distance himself and thus keep Harry safe; adoptive uncle Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), for all of his honesty and warmth in comforting young Potter’s confusion, is dispatched in slow-motion during a climatic battle; and, in a despairingly touching scene, Harry lashes out at the mind-reading Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) with a taste of his own medicine, discovering that Harry’s assumedly angelic father was really a bully while at Hogwarts. Sour disappointment at the duplicity of adulthood strikes much deeper than special effects, and Radcliffe makes the most of these crucial emotional low points, highlighted by quickly cut nightmares. But all hope is not lost, for Harry’s first kiss and burgeoning leadership skills offset his myriad disillusionments. The title thus makes sense as the beginning of a young man's rebirth from destruction by personal tragedy. As the only Hogwarts student with any experience in using magic outside school walls, he takes it upon himself to prepare his friends for the inevitable attack of the Dark Lord, gathering a force of young people against what has amounted to a betrayal by the adult world, whether symbolized by Umbridge’s management, Harry’s father figures, or the series’ literal cavalcade of teachers-turned-Voldemort pawns. Harry is now beginning to take up the burdensome mantle of responsibility for his world’s future, and Radcliffe’s portrayal is equally up to the task.

However, the force of his growth is diminished by the film’s leaden plot threads, chief among them the aforementioned Zero for Conduct-esque school revolt and a muddled quest for a prophesying object at the Ministry of Secrets. Overused narrative shorthand, like animated newspaper stories, weakens the already obviously compressed storyline’s flow and coherence. Even the titular Order of the Phoenix, an assemblage of wizards and witches out to defend Harry and oppose Voldemort, only serve as a climactic deus ex machina. Unlike the imaginative style of the so far high point of the series, Prisoner of Azkaban, everything here (except for the opening scene that almost feels like a different film) is treated with the same visual stasis that prevents momentum and vitality. The proceedings at times seem perfunctory, and the admittedly solid computer effects have become workmanlike and fail to impress any more. Magic is unfortunately now the norm, no longer brightening the eyes of Harry, his compatriots, or the audience, supplanted instead by the gloomy concerns of Harry’s young adulthood. If only the series could capture that same spark of heroic sorrow that momentarily flash in Daniel Radcliffe’s eyes when he realizes the illusory magic of growing up.

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