Harry Potter

film 5 of 8

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 5, 2014

Look at that. They made the best of the movies out of the worst of the books. The opening sequence in the playground is just tremendous. In a flash a bit of banal, everyday bullying gives way to so much more, and so much worse (cf. Blue Velvet, Eyes Wide Shut, our weary world). In this moment figurative fantasy affixes itself to dire social reality, not to mention the Evil that Men Do. In so doing the production collective establishes a sense of menace that inflects everything that follows, for the rest of the film. This colour and hope-bleached sequence hints to young audiences that violence and malice just might be a constant fact, even an inevitability. (As if the bullied didn’t know that already.)  HP4 tried bravely for this, and came up a bit short. HP5 nails it. For all of Fred and George’s hi-jinx, these are kiddy movies no more; for the remainder we’ll be grappling in the realms of myth and archetype, that is if we can keep terminal anxiety at bay.

(On the other hand. “Justice!” says the sublime Richard Griffiths. Along with the part when George falls down and Ringo trips over him, or that alleged motorcycle accident of Pee Herman’s, this vies as candidate for the greatest moment in film history.)

Straight from that violated playground, Harry’s bogus trial introduces a key subplot, and a key subtext. This theo-fascism is what The Golden Compass (film) was trying to get at. (The books didn’t have to try. There aren’t many more effective critiques of zealot fundamentalism, as extended to political settings. One may not like Pullman’s polemical atheism, but in his trilogy he gets this problem precisely right. Who knows?  It might be the theo-fascists that drove him to his atheism in the first place.)  H.P. 5 (film) does it more successfully. It’s a maddening, chilling prospect, especially given how glibly, smugly self-satisfied the fascists are. There’s some tweak and hyperbole here, but not that much!

Dolores Umbridge/Imelda Staunton carries this ball, and does so really wonderfully. She’s a combination of Nurse Ratched and Tomas de Torquemada—an outsized, hugely formidable, historically plausible antagonist. In the face of this implacable force Mrs. Figg’s quiet intervention at the trial is not only narratively satisfying, but it feels historically true. Morally true, as well. She’s like the good neighbour at the quiet centre of Marcel Ophuls’ agonizing 270 minute holocaust documentary, Hotel Terminus (1988). We can’t do much, especially in the face of thrones and principalities. But the small thing, faithfully and courageously undertaken, can occasionally be enough. In the same vein, Trelawney’s ouster/McGonagall’s empathy and anger/Dumbledore’s intervention have tremendous dramatic power, and real historic resonance.

The great thing is how they (Rowling, Yates, et al.) counter this Inquisition with freedom fighting, this overwhelming threat with effectual engagement. The whole establishment of Dumbledore’s Army is a wonderful dramatic accomplishment. It creates a superb balance of forces, of jeopardy and hopefulness. While Umbridge channels Measure for Measure’s Angelo—“I must not tell lies”!—the kids grow into capability and adulthood through patient labour, incremental increase, and mutual regard. The part where Harry sincerely praises them all for acting so very bravely, for doing so very well, is so very moving. Legions arrayed against us, and yet, you can do anything! Calumnies may defame, but no man is poor who has friends. I have just pulled an intertextual muscle.

(On the other hand, pt. 2: “Obviously…”)

The book’s central difficulty, it’s central dumb implausibility remains—Dumbledore ignores Harry because he cares about him so—but in the end the film has so much judicious source-cutting, so much propulsion and, most importantly, so much care and regard that this difficulty isn’t really very important anymore. We’ve touched upon this. The Stone and the Chamber and the Prisoner and the Goblet only account for half of the Rowling/Potter books’ success. Just as importantly, and probably more abidingly, the books work because they take time for the little, incidental, digressive things that ground all of the action. At this point in the evolution of the franchise, the films are completely and wonderfully in step.

Luna Lovegood, for instance, which is also to say the luminous young Evanna Lynch. She provides some terrific laughs—hats!—but there’s a great deal more, and better, going on. Luna is the mystery of youthfulness, as well as the incomprehension and cruelty with which so many meet that mystery. As such, she also represents the sorrow and alienation of the unwanted. Even better, she represents or even embodies the empathy and tenderness that accrue when trials are bravely met. It’s what Tim Burton’s pale legions are getting at, but so rarely actually get to.

HP 5‘s climax is fabulous, just unutterably exciting, frightening, sad and beautiful. A brutish Death Eater pummels little Luna. In response she just gets back up, wipes the blood from her nose, and continues to quietly, explosively do the right thing. Ginny! Celts! Spectacle and technology are perfectly plied here, all in the service of character and concept. Helena Bonham-Carter is chewing the scenery of course. She is doing it very well indeed, and it registers spectacularly. But notice, in contrast, how quietly Gary Oldman/Sirius expires. Contra similar incidents in a couple of the earlier films, these filmmakers have earned our emotional responses now, as well as our trust and respect. There’s no need to pile it on, or protest too much. Gambon is so very affecting here, waging an old man’s battle, and winning. “He’s back!”  Popular culture, when it’s both popular and cultural, really is the best.

Finally, cf. Marcel Proust and that madeleine biscuit, I remember this film and the summer of 2007, and the Royalty Theatre in the unutterably beautiful town of Windermere, in England’s Lake District, and the dear company of my children Drew, Sarah and Spencer. I also remember a pre-Deathly Hallows Potter marathon in the upstairs family room of our beloved friends and neighbours the Taylors, just two doors down from us for all these years. I remember their kids and our kids and us all together there, ostensibly just watching some movies, which were nevertheless now comprehending so much more than just the myth that JK Rowling made.