School is back in session at Hogwarts and not a moment too soon. A dark cloud looms over Hogwarts and the entire world - magical and muggle alike. Lord Voldemort is back and is now evil incarnate having mixed his blood with that of Harry Potter at the conclusion of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” And as to be expected, Harry is again in hot water not only with his muggle aunt and uncle who have now disowned him (the best thing that could ever happen to the little boy who lived under the cupboard), but even worse, Harry faces a trial before the Ministry of Magic for performing the forbidden Patronus Charm, despite the fact that it was to fend off an attack by the soul-sucking Dementors. It is because of their source of sustenance that the Ministry employs the Dementors and pays them by permitting “feeding” off the souls at Azakban prison, but the Ministry seems to forget the cardinal teachings of Sun-tzu - keep your friends close but your enemies closer. As we will all see, the Ministry fails to keep the Dementors close enough, making them invaluable to Lord Valdemort.
Not long after Harry’s encounter with the Dementors, he receives a letter via an owl messenger that he is expelled from Hogwarts for performing magic. Oddly, more letters arrive from his godfather Sirius Black and Ron Weasley’s father, Arthur, himself in the Ministry, instructing Harry to stay in the house and then advising his expulsion is overturned and he is to appear for trial.
Its not long before Harry is secreted away at the family home of Sirius Black for protection pending his trial. While there he learns of the Order of the Phoenix. Just to bring you up to speed, the Order of the Phoenix was founded by Dumbledore many years ago to combat Voldemort and his followers known as Death Eaters. Harry’s parents, along with Sirius Black and many others whom we have come to know and love, were members of the original Order but with Voldemort out of the picture for so many years, the Order faded away. Now, however, with Voldemort in corporeal form, the Order is needed more than ever. And in case you were wondering how Dumbledore arrived at the name, same has never been explained although many believe it is attributable to Fawkes, his beloved Phoenix.
Thanks to a last minute intervention at trial from Professor Dumbledore, Harry narrowly escapes expulsion from Hogwarts. However, a more harrowing threat looms. The Ministry refuses to believe Harry that Lord Voldemort, the one whose name they do not speak, is alive as for Voldemort to be alive would mean that the Ministry of Magic is not as powerful as it wants everyone to believe. So, the Ministry embarks on a smear campaign designed to discredit Harry and Dumbledore.
As to be expected, a new professor appears at Hogwarts and this term it’s in the form of a pink hair-sprayed tyrant named Dolores Umbridge, Professor of the Dark Arts. Charming on the outside in her puffery of pink, Professor Umbridge appears the height of society, fit for tea with the Queen. But inside, her own darkness runs deep and her allegiance to the Ministry unparalleled. Ruling with an iron fist, Umbridge is the poster child for the edict “spare the rod, spoil the child.” And it’s not just the students she challenges. Using the power imbued her by the Ministry, she fires teachers, bans the practice of magic (in a magic school, mind you) and even goes so far as to strip Dumbledore of his title as headmaster. Dolores Umbridge makes Hogwarts her own domain. Think Hitler in pink with a magic wand.
Never one content to sit idly by, Harry determines to clear his name and that of Dumbledore and at Hermione’s insistence, with the help of fellow classmates, begins to mount his own forces to fight not only Umbridge and the Ministry, but Voldemort, whose power has been ever increasing and whose legion of followers has been rising from the depths and dregs including one Lucius Malfoy, father of Harry’s Slytherin nemesis, Draco Malfoy. But evil is everywhere, including Bellatrix Lestrange, a dark witch, devotee to Voldemort and cousin to Sirius Black, who herself has gone a bit mad during her own imprisonment at Azkaban. As Harry becomes a teacher of Defense Against the Dark Arts to his peers we are given more insight into just how powerful a wizard not just Harry is, but his classmates, as they form Dumbledore’s Army. Joining DA along with Harry, Ron and Hermione, are among others, Ginny Weasley, Neville Longbottom and a newcomer from Ravenclaw - Luna Lovewood. Also coming to Harry’s aid is his long perceived enemy, Professor Severus Snape, a returning Professor Lupien and Professor Mad-Eye Moody.
Knowing that the final showdown is coming, the battle lines are drawn and wands are at the ready. But remember, this is Hogwarts, a mystical and magical land, where things - and people - are not always what or who they seem.
Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint are back again as everyone’s favorite wizards, Harry, Ron and Hermione. Their newfound maturity is evident, as is their ever increasing bond to each other. Taking even more of lead than in “Goblet of Fire”, Radcliffe is an absolute standout, exuding a confidence that far outweighs his young years. Sadly, as Ron, Rupert Grint falls a bit to the back this go round, but look for him to step to the forefront in the final two films. Also returning are the incomparable Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, the delicious Alan Rickman as Potionology Professor Snape who although limited in screen time this go round steals every second with such a dichotomous forceful elan to the point of being Oscar worthy, Michael Gambone as the beloved Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, Brendan Gleeson as Professor Alastor Mad-Eye Moody, Emma Thompson as Sybil Trelawney, Gary Oldman as Sirius Black and of course, Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort. Still not quite fully formed as a human, Voldemort’s flattened facial characteristics, nasal absence and slithering appearance only add to the fear and chills Fiennes brings to Voldemort.
New to the group is Imelda Staunton as Professor Umbridge. A formidable presence, Staunton is a delight to watch. Never knowing which way the wind will blow, she is a master of illusion and goes from sickeningly sweet to strikingly stern in the blink of an eye. Also joining in the fun is Helena Bonham Carter as the embodiment of the maniacal demented Bellatrix. Known for her somewhat bizarre performances, Bonham Carter is shear perfection as if JK Rowling had her in mind when she created Bellatrix Lestrange. Delicious demented decadence. On the side of goodness and light, Evanna Lynch is adorable as the hippy-esque Luna Lovegood who quickly becomes one of Harry’s greatest allies. Always thinking out of the box, Lynch has a flighty air that serves as precious balance to the darkness of the film.
In this 5th installment of the most successful literary-film franchise in history, David Yates takes the helm as director and Michael Goldenberg pinch hits for veteran Potter scribe Steve Kloves, as they take on the daunting task of bringing Order of the Phoenix to life and paring it down to viewable length from the book’s 870 pages, the lengthiest of any of the Harry Potter books. Ironically, the film comes in at 138 minutes, the shortest of the series.
Don’t look for Potter standards like Quidditch, the Whomping Willow, flying cars or classroom hijinx and magic. The stakes are higher now. Harry, Ron and Hermione are growing up, taking charge, challenging their elders as every teenager does. And much of the detail we so love about the J.K. Rowling books and Steve Kloves’ earlier film adaptations is omitted or abbreviated this go round in film, but for Harry’s relationship with Sirius Black which is portrayed with such love so as to bring a tear to your eye. Of all books to “cut”, this fate should not have happened with Order of the Phoenix, a chapter to so pivotal to the storyline and Harry Potter as a whole. (Joyfully, Kloves returns to adapt “Half-Blood Prince” and hopefully, “Deathly Hallows” thereafter.) We also lose a sense of academia and the school year, a detail that has carried through with seasonal change in each preceding film. Much of the interplay among the characters is also lost, giving way to the high tech battle sequences between good and evil. Sadly, the laboring oar is now on Steve Kloves to reinvigorate missing relationships in “Half-Blood Prince” if the story is to play out as written. However, Goldenberg retains the dramatic intensity so prevalent in the book and thanks to some inspired direction by David Yates hones in the critical chapters with acuity, visual acumen and heart-pounding excitement.
As for David Yates, I had doubts about him jumping from just a television background into a project the magnitude of Harry Potter. While many of my doubts have been substantiated, some have been allayed, particularly when it comes to the battle scenes between the DA and Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Precise and intense, there is one wand battle that puts the ultimate light saber battle between Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker in “Revenge of the Sith” to shame. Unfortunately, the zeal with which Yates portrays battle is not upheld through the rest of the film. Heavy handed foreshadowing and overall darkness replaces intricacies in the book, a tactic I can only hope Yates resolves in “The Half Blood Prince” which he is slated to direct for release on November 21, 2008. Sadly, the talents of production designer Stuart Craig seem for naught as Yates glosses over some spectacular sets, squelching imagination in favor of what appears to be more mechanical staged 2-camera television direction. Another shortcoming is the work of cinematographer Slawomir Idziak which again lacks imagination and borders on banal.
Also to the film’s detriment is the noticeable absence of John Williams sweeping score.
Good, but not quite great, HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX does not wear out its welcome, keeps the franchise intact, entertains and enthralls, and leaves us looking toward the future and the ultimate battle between Harry and Voldemort. And again, I can’t say it enough, to appreciate the depth of the story and the characters, if you haven’t already done so, read the book and let your imagination soar.
Harry Potter - Daniel Radcliffe
Ron Weasley - Rupert Grint
Hermione Granger - Emma Watson
Lord Voldemort - Ralph Fiennes
Albus Dumbledore - Michael Gambon
Sirius Black - Gary Oldman
Severus Snape - Alan Rickman
Minerva McGonagall - Maggie Smith
Dolores Umbridge - Imelda Staunton
Bellatrix Lestrange - Helena Bonham Carter
Directed by David Yates. Written by Michael Goldenberg based on the novel by J.K. Rowling. Rated PG-13. (138 min).