Harry Potter as Cinema: ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’
In case you didn’t know, the last Harry Potter film is coming out on July 15th. In countdown to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, I will be doing a bi-weekly series called “Harry Potter as Cinema”, starting with the first film in the series and working my way up to the final film. I will take an academic approach to the Harry Potter films as pieces of cinema, examining not only their quality but also what they are saying thematically.
Written by Michael Goldenberg
Directed by David Yates
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix might be the best and most fascinating film in the Harry Potter franchise. Up to this point, it was by far the bleakest and and most mature film in the series while also being one of the best allegories for the war on terror that we have gotten. This was David Yates first major film, he was best known for directing the BBC Mini-Series State of Play and the chilling TV film Sex Traffic, and he proved to be a fantastic choice for this material. It is also helped by the inclusion of the best villain in the Harry Potter series, Delores Umbridge, chillingly played by Imelda Staunton (more on here in a minute).
Also from a script standpoint, this is by far the strongest Potter script. This is due to a change in screenwriters with Michael Goldenberg stepping in for Steve Kloves. Don’t get me wrong, Kloves has done fantastic work in the series but there is still a bit of clunkiness that can be found in his Potter scripts. Goldenberg, coming from a playwright background, trims down much of the extra filler in Rowling’s novel down to the essentials, and by doing that improves on Rowling’s original source material.
The film opens in Little Whinging on a shot of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) sitting by himself on a playground. Dudley Dursley (Harry Melling) comes up to Harry and immediately starts bullying him. However that doesn’t last soon as the dementers from Azkaban have been sent and immediately attack Harry and Dudley. This scene is masterfully shot and staged. One thing that this sequence does that isn’t in the other films, and is a signature of Yates’ Potter films, is that it firmly takes place in the real world. Yates combines the real world with the wizarding world very well. This is helped by the gritty cinematography of Slawomir Idziak, a regular of Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Harry saves Dudley but is caught using magic outside of school. Forced to go on the run from the Ministry of Magic, Harry gets an assist from the Order of the Phoenix, an organization established by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) to defend themselves against Lord Voldemort. Once brought back to the burrow, he meets up with Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), who have been hiding out there all summer long. The Ministry not only refuses to believe that Voldemort is back but they have also made Albus Dumbledore “public enemy number one” in the eyes of the wizarding world.
Harry is given a trial date and faces possible sentencing in Azkaban if found guilty of using magic in the presence of muggles. Right before the trial, we see a shot of Lucius Malfoy (Jason Issaacs) talking to Corneilius Fudge. Fudge is portrayed as George W Bush like character, basically incompetent as minister and willing to defer to the opinions of others about what to do. However the trial itself eerily reflects the US Guantanamo Bay trials that took place in 2006 when the United States refused to allow detainees the right to defend themselves. Two particular trials come to mind, the trials of Ali Hamza Ahmad al-Bahlul and Omar Khadr. In fact the transcript from Harry’s trial is not unlike that of a young detainee from Saudi Arabia, courtesy of BBC News.
It is here where we are first introduced to Delores Umbridge, played brilliantly by Imelda Staunton. She is one of the jurors and questions Harry about his use of magic to fight off the dementors. Harry is let off the hook after Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) arrives and is able to provide Harry with a witness to back up his story.
After being acquitted, Harry moves on with his life and returns to Hogwarts with Hermione and Ron. It is here where we are introduced to Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), an outsider whose dad writes for The Quibbler. Unfortunately for Harry, Umbridge is now the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, sent by the Ministry to keep an eye on Dumbledore. She refuses to teach students actual spells and her version of detention is torture. Yes, there is a scene where Harry is given a detention and forced to write with a pen that carves the words he is writing onto his hand.
The allegory to the war on terror is very clear here and there are also nods to fascism when Umbridge takes over the school. There is one particular scene towards the end when Umbridge needs to find out a piece of information from Harry. The Cruciatis Curse, also known as the torture curse, is one of the worst curses in the wizarding world and is illegal. However Umbridge is determined to get the information out of Harry: “Very well. You give me no choice, Potter. As this is an issue of Ministry security, you leave me with no alternative. The Cruciatus Curse ought to loosen your tongue.” The analogy to the use of torture in Guantanamo Bay in order to get prisoner’s to confess is direct but it isn’t heavy handed.
With that being said, the great thing about this film is how much of an emotional journey this is for Harry. It is a brilliant psychological drama/thriller with the most frightening stuff appearing in his head. We are finally in Harry’s head and, like with most teenagers, that can be a dark and disturbing place. The legilimency scenes are a great analogy for the pain of puberty. In the book, Harry became so unlikable at times that he bordered on being a real shit. It was interesting at first but he started to become really petulant and whiny after a little while. In the movie, it never crosses the line. We understand why he would be a bit moody sometimes but is all due to being tortured individual. There is one fantastic sequence right in the middle of the film that perfectly deals with this stuff. In the middle of the night Harry has a vision of a snake attacking Arthur Weasley at the Ministry. He awakens and is taken by Ron and Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) to see Dumbledore immediately. The vision is correct and Dumbledore is able to dispatch an auror to the Ministry to save Arthur just in time. However, Harry becoming impatient because he hasn’t been provided with an explanation screams to Dumbledore, and everyone else in the room, “LOOK AT ME!… What’s happening to me?”
Just as Harry finishes saying this, Snape (Alan Rickman) arrives and Dumbledore tells them that Snape must begin giving Harry Occlumency lessons immediately. The lessons are really well done and dark. It is here where we get a sense of Snape’s humanity trying desperately to teach him how to guard against Voldemort’s attacks.
Part of the reason this works is because of Radcliffe’s brilliant performance. He has always been solid in the films, however he was also never really tested until this film. Yes Prisoner of Azkaban did demand some dark scenes from him but he was also still just a kid. This is his first adult performance in the film and it is definitely one of his best. The other younger actor who does quite well is Evana Lynch as Luna Lovegood. She brings the right amount of joy and sorrow to her wonderfully off-kilter line readings.
However the show stealer is Staunton as Umbridge. She is absolutely terrifying, underplaying Umbridge’s nastiest qualities. In the hands of another actress, this may have been a scenery chewing performance but she performs the act of being pink and happy sincerely enough, so that it makes the undercurrent of what she says all the more chilling. This is easily the franchise’s best villain.
The other performances from the traditional embarrassment of riches that make up the supporting cast are mostly good. Gambon has a lot of swagger as Dumbledore and this is the first time that Dumbledore really gets to be a bad ass. The final action sequence is between him and Voldemort, and it is quite thrilling watching these two brilliant wizards face off. Fiennes is once again quite menacing as Voldemort and Rickman gives his first complete performance of the series as Snape.
However, mostly good because of the one flaw of the film, besides Cho Chang (Katie Leung does solid work) and the fact that the Harry-Cho romance, while improved from the book, is still not dealt with in a satisfying way, is Bellatrix Lestrange, or rather Helena Bonham Carter’s outrageous performance as LeStrange. In the books, Lestrange is batshit insane but Bonham-Carter needed spit out some of the scenery that she was chewing.
The big star of the film is Yates. This was his first big film and he does an excellent job. As Umbridge begins taking over, Yates and his cinematographer Idziak turn the film into a German expressionist film. However the scenes in the muggle world are gritty and realistic. The action sequences are well done, the wand battle between Dumbledore’s Army and the Death Eaters and the finale in the Ministry between Dumbledore and Voldemort being particularly strong. The wand battle actually has even more stakes because Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), Harry’s godfather is killed. However it is actually the scene right after that really sums the film up well. As for Dumbledore and Voldemort, the best choice Yates made was not using any music. Voldemort possesses Harry and for awhile Harry is helpless, speaking through Harry to Dumbledore, while Harry’s friends look on. While he eventually shields himself from Voldemort, it’s quite powerful to be forced to watch Harry near the edge of death.
Order of the Phoenix is the best Harry Potter film and it works on multiple levels including as a political allegory and as psychological thriller.