Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Rating:

Much Better Than the Book

Main Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Imelda Staunton, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman

Director: David Yates

When my wife first told me that a friend of ours had invited us to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I almost said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

It wasn’t because I had anything against Harry Potter. I’m currently reading Deathly Hallows, and have seen all the movies. It’s because of all of J.K. Rowling’s books, Order of the Phoenix was my least favorite. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to pay theater prices — even matinee prices — to sit through two-plus hours of angry teenage angst.

Fortunately, director David Yates remembers something that Rowling forgot: less is often more.

A story synopsis

Order of the Phoenix opens with an act of unauthorized, underage magic — Harry (Radcliffe) casting the Patronus Charm to protect himself and his cousin Dudley from Dementors. Already in trouble with the Ministry of Magic, which is still in denial about the return of Voldemort (Fiennes), Harry is promptly expelled from Hogwarts, and just as quickly reinstated pending a hearing at the Ministry. Members of a secret anti-Voldemort society then rescue him from Privet Drive, and in no time at all Harry finds himself with a new nemesis, Dolores Umbridge (Staunton); a secret group of his own; and even a love interest, all the while experiencing disturbing visions that may reveal the new object of Voldemort’s desire. But as his friends Ron (Grint) and Hermione (Watson) keep reminding him, Harry doesn’t have to fight the good fight all by himself.

Swift, assured storytelling …

This was a lot to cram into one movie, but Yates is equal to the task. It helps that he and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg dropped a lot of material that isn’t crucial to the central plot. While I wish they had been able to fit in the Quidditch scenes (Grint probably does too), the omission doesn’t change the story’s outcome. Nor is it critical to know about the existence of Squibs or the different wards at St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. And the scenes early on at the Order headquarters are good for background, but needlessly delay Harry’s return to Hogwarts, a move Yates accomplishes within the first half-hour.

Yates navigates through the remaining material with ease. Instead of showing example after example of Harry blowing up at his friends, he gives us one or two instances, and trusts viewers to understand that this is sudden and uncharacteristic of him. Similarly, Yates sees no need to include every line of every scene involving Professor Umbridge; instead, he takes some of the choicest bits and makes montages out of them, which do more to illustrate her ascendance at Hogwarts than a drawn-out confrontation with any one character would’ve have done. (I’m also glad that the movie only included one scene of Harry doing lines with Umbridge’s special quills.)

In general, Order of the Phoenix keeps up a swift pace, aided by quick transitions from one scene to another (often cutting away at points that for Rowling were just the start of a discussion) and the occasional use of newspaper headlines for exposition. The editing, special effects and art direction serve the story instead of the other way around … which isn’t to say there aren’t some wonderful shots and set pieces. I particularly enjoyed the phone booth entrance to the Ministry, the mewing kitties in Umbridge’s office, and George and Fred’s pyrotechnic farewell to Hogwarts. The climactic fight at the end was also well-done, although Yates passed on the chance to do some truly spectacular effects.

… and spot-on acting

Radcliffe has to carry much of this movie, and he does extremely well. The Harry in the book is often so petulant you want to smack him, but Radcliffe’s Potter is a more subtle mix of determination, guilt, anger, and fear inspired by that anger. The rest of the core cast is solid, though the movie’s omission of some material means that some actors get short shrift. At least Snape (Rickman) and Dumbledore (Gambon) will be major characters in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which is more than can be said for Sirius (Oldman).

Staunton, the major addition to the cast, is wonderfully awful as Umbridge. I don’t know too many actresses who can convey sadism, false kindness and general meanness while dressed in pink from head to toe. Staunton’s one of them.

Verdict: four out of five stars

Yates has done a pretty good job with his first Harry Potter adaptation, and he’s already signed up for the next one. If Rowling hadn’t already ended the series, I’d tell her to watch this movie. She could’ve learned a few things.

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