Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
2007Director: David Yates
Cast: Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson
here is one great scene in the new Harry Potter film, the latest in the series (there seems to be a new one every time I turn around, like Ryan Adams records), and it comes at the very beginning. Now a sullen teenager, Harry is being taunted on a playground by his oafish cousin Dudley. This is nothing new—Dudley has been badgering Harry for four films now—but the air is ominous and tense. A rusty swing set creaks. The grass is yellow and hard. Suddenly, the skies darken, and two rotting Dementors descend from a thundercloud (they look like flying Boris Karloffs). As Harry and Dudley flee, the camera follows from above, shaking slightly, as if trembling with fear. The Dementors trap them in a grimy sewer beneath an overpass, bring their corpse-like faces up close, and proceed to suck out their souls.
It’s an effective scene, with an authentically gothic atmosphere, but when those Dementors started to suck, I couldn’t help but think that under certain overpasses in the non-wizarding world, people are paid to perform a similar service. And so it goes with director David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; every time the movie seems ready to take flight, it crashes back down to earth with a lousy line of dialogue, an awkward transition, or a dead slice of camp humor. The pacing feels off; some scenes are drawn out to a snail’s pace when they should have sped along, while others zip past when they seem to want to linger. As the demonic Umbrage, Imelda Staunton is given plenty of opportunities to creep us out with her office full of kittens and self-satisfied giggling, but Gary Oldman’s Sirius Black has surprisingly little to do. Charming moments, like Hermione’s befriending of a giant with the help of a bicycle bell, stand alongside dull expository passages, like the frequent newspaper headlines that fill us in on all the important information the movie doesn’t have time to show.
This unevenness is only partially the fault of filmmakers; the source novel stands, at nearly nine hundred pages, as the most unwieldy installment in J. K. Rowling’s series. It is also the point at which Ms. Rowling seems to have forgotten that books need editors: none of the first six “Potter” books (in a handy bit of cross-promotion, the seventh, and supposedly last “Potter,” will be pressed into grubby hands worldwide next week) contain anything more tedious than the sections of “Phoenix” devoted to Hermione’s insufferable House-Elf Liberation campaign, or to Harry’s chemistry-free courtship of stupidly-named Cho Chang (was she named after all the ringing cash registers Rowling heard in her head as she was writing?). But “Phoenix” also marked a turning point in the series—Rowling’s uneven prose seemed to finally come to life, and Harry’s teenage angst gave the book a weight that even the witty “Goblet of Fire” failed to match. That angst is unquestionably a presence in the filmed Phoenix, but it seems received rather than felt, dutifully included instead of dramatized.
This has been the problem with the Potter films since the beginning. Has there even been a film adaptation more terrified of disappointing readers than Chris Columbus’ The Sorcerer’s Stone? Mike Newell’s Goblet of Fire was an effective fantasy picture, but was so convoluted by its reliance on the source material that more than a few neophytes were left scratching their heads. So far, the Potter franchise doesn’t seek to adapt Rowling’s novels so much as illustrate them. This is a curious development, and a significant one: Hollywood once considered bestsellers source material; they now look at them as marketing opportunities. This is all the more disappointing in that I suspect the right creative team could have wrought great fantasy pictures from this material; Terry Gilliam would work wonders with “The Half Blood Prince,” and the series has already produced one near-great film in Alfonso Cuarón’s magnificent Prisoner of Azkaban—not so coincidentally, the least-faithful adaptation, and the only film to capture the imaginative wit and pubescent darkness of Rowling’s best work.
The casting of the Potter pictures has been superb: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson have grown gracefully into their roles as Harry, Ron and Hermione, blossoming from the awkward child actors of Sorcerer’s Stone to the thoughtful performers of Phoenix (I only wish they’d been given more to do). And the supporting players include some of the finest British character actors working today—Kenneth Branagh, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Fiona Shaw—all of whom, I imagine, took the gig to impress their Potter-loving children and grandchildren.
But complain as I might, those children and grandchildren will probably be cheering at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Will they notice that the volume has been turned up on the ending, that what was spooky-quiet on the page has been blow up with CGI special effects and explosions so that it looks better on a seventy-foot screen? Will they care? I suppose they’ll be too busy comparing the images onscreen to the ones that had previously filled their heads. My guess is that the images in their heads were probably richer, more imaginative, and more alive than anything in the film; my fear is that they won’t have enough confidence in their own imaginations to agree with me.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is currently in wide release.
By: Patrick McKay
Published on: 2007-07-19