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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (review)

Black Magic

It’s not so much the sun as it is a nuclear fireball burning down over the neat suburban tracts of Little Whinging, Surrey, as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix opens. It’s hot — 100 degrees, the kind of apocalyptic heat Britain has, unfortunately, come to know in recent years. The killer European heat wave of 2003 had not yet struck when J.K. Rowling published, early that summer, the fifth book in her series, upon which this film is based… but director David Yates uses our hindsight as the jumping-off for the grittiest, grimmest, most astonishingly significant Harry Potter film yet.

It’s hot, and Harry is miserable with loneliness, and this is when Dementors strike, those hellish soul-eaters, the dread guardians of the wizard prison of Azkaban. What they’re doing in Little Whinging is a mystery at the moment (unless you’ve read the book, of course), but Yates’ unwillingness to go easy on us grownups — never mind the kiddies — is immediately apparent. Oh, there is magic here, but there’s nothing sweet or luminous about it. This is magic as power, as an expression of recognizable human impulses both noble and terrible, as something as real and as stark and as undeniable as the grungy, graffiti-scrawled pedestrian tunnel, harsh lit in gray-green, in which the Dementors attack Harry and his cousin, Dudley. It reminded me, in a gruesomely wicked (though still PG-13) way of the horrific rape scene in the French film Irreversible, which occurs in a very, very similar enclosed and stifling place.

Yates — he’s new to the Potter series; he’ll be directing No. 6, The Half-Blood Prince, too — is an artist who makes television dramas about the trafficking of human beings for sexual exploitation, and about politically tinged murder. He has not left that bleak ethos behind just because he’s making a “children’s movie” here… and I would hesitate to bring young kids to see this one. Holy shit, but this may be the best straight-up horror movie of the year — I was riveted by the sinister sophistication of it. I forgot to breathe at moments, would suddenly find my mouth dry while watching it because I’d been agape for long minutes at its sheer ghastly — though never graphic — freshness.

The film is not relentlessly intense; there are moments of deft humor and rewarding loveliness. Harry introduces Mr. Weasley to the experience of riding the Underground, inverting the sense of wonder you’d expect from a movie like this: the fantastical folk marveling at such ordinary miracles as we Muggles take for granted. This fully realized world feels newly lush and rich: the wizard newspaper, The Daily Prophet, for one, suddenly looks like the animated newspapers of Minority Report, proving that any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. Harry shares his first kiss with a pretty classmate — it’s an awkward moment, sure, but these are not overly sexual Hollywoodized brats: of course it’s awkward, but sweet with it.

And yet… even all the light moments ring with the gloomy force of the larger story. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is with Mr. Weasley (Mark Williams) on the subway because he — Harry — is being hauled up before the Ministry of Magic for the crime of being underage and using magic in the presence of a Muggle; no matter that he was saving the life of his cousin from the Dementors. The Prophet is full of the denials from the Ministry that You-Know-Who has returned, that Harry is a liar for saying so (picking up the story from the last film, when Voldemort, the Osama Bin Laden of the wizarding world, popped back up with a vengeance after his last rampage, when Harry was orphaned as a baby), and that a new headmaster has been appointed at Hogwarts to stamp down on the rebellion simmering there among the student, who want to learn how to defend themselves against Voldemort and his evil minions.

Wizards zoom on broomsticks over the nighttime skies of London, past the Houses of Parliament; this is the real world, our real world, emphatically not a fantasy realm, and Phoenix — adapted by screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan, Contact), also new to the Potter series — resounds with relevance. “Laws can be changed if necessary,” Minster of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy: The Lost World) thunders, and rails endlessly and meaninglessly about “security” as an excuse for dismissing democracy and reason, echoing too much of what we in the Muggle world have heard of late. (Pointedly, the Ministry is festooned with a stark banner of Fudge’s mug, done up in Modern Fascist style.) Dogmatism and accusations of “disloyalty” sound through Hogwarts from the lips of prim Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton: Freedom Writers, Nanny McPhee), a terror in pink, who gathers little brownshirts — like villain-in-waiting Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) — to do her bidding. (Her office is a place of terrible cuteness, dictatorial rhymes-with-witchiness masquerading as matronly innocuousness.) And Voldemort himself (Ralph Fiennes: The White Countess, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit)… no wizard robes for him. In his sharp black suit, he is a frightful vision of contemporary corporate malice.

Fudge is “warped by fear,” not just of Voldemort but of the possibilities presented by Harry’s own potent power and clear leadership qualities, as the teenage wizard gathers around him a loyal band of Hogwarts students who want to learn the protective magic no one else will teach them. Phoenix echoes not just last year’s V for Vendetta but — as unlikely as it sounds — Michael Moore’s Sicko in its exploration of that tipping point between people being afraid of their government and the government being afraid of its people. This is no simple children’s movie, and it’s no simple grownups’ movie, either.

And Harry… He worries that he is more like Voldemort than anyone will tell him. He is driven to the edge of insanity by the end of Phoenix, which builds to a confrontation with You-Know-Who that is as sorrowfully enthralling as anything I’ve ever seen on film. As Harry gets older and more conflicted, and Radcliffe matures into a fine young actor upon whose shoulders falls the tricky task of giving expression to Harry’s wounded inner psyche — which Radcliffe does very nicely here — Harry’s isolation, even among his closest Hogwarts friends, is more poignant, and more disturbing, than ever. And all of this from a very young man who’s just barely enjoyed his first kiss.

That’s the real and palpable horror here: not the magic spells and the scary creatures, but the shadows that lurk in one seemingly ordinary boy, and that lurk all around us in the Muggle world. Escapism? Hah. This is as grounded in authenticity as movies get.

The Harry Potter saga reviewed:
‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’
‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’
‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’
‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’

US/Canada release date: Jul 11 2007 | UK release date: Jul 12 2007

MPAA: rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images
BBFC: rated 12 (contains moderate fantasy violence and horror)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes
  • http://www.mizscience.blogspot.com Melissa

    Wow, thank you for writing a review that actually tells something about the movie instead of ranting on about opinionated nonsense. I was going to see the movie anyway, but this review has allowed me to now go in there expecting a bit more than ‘another HP flick.’ Very well-written article.

  • sam

    I have to agree with Melissa. I would have seen the movie no matter what you said. But this is a great article. Of course being the #1 fan I already know what is going to happen. But reading your article refreshing. Because it gets to the heart of the books (and the movies) which is Harry and what he is dealing with.

  • Michael

    I must say, your’s is the most well thought and presented review I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. You reveal so much, while revealing nothing. You have given me hope in this film (I was afraid as it’s the shortest film and the longest book) as I was afraid too much would be cut. To date, OotP has been my favorite book. Now, it seems, it may become my favorite film.

  • MBI

    “Horror movie” was exactly what I was thinking about this movie, and I think it’s a credit to Staunton that she comes off as more horrifying than Voldemort. I also like that the movie doesn’t make the Ministry of Magic as direct an analogue of Bush as V for Vendetta did. I mean, yeah, the parallels are numerous and obvious (and terrifying), but one thing you definitely can’t say about Bush is that he’s trying to keep citizens from being scared of genuine evildoers. Keeps it more timeless, rather than topical. This is some sticky stuff in this movie indeed.

  • Josh

    Great review, although I do not agree one bit that the film was as scary as you thought it was. Actually, I thought it took a step back to the Cutesy Town that the first two films resided in. The substance and story just did not match Harry’s angst. Good effort though. Better than most sequels.

  • Josh

    I am not telling you to change anything. Just pointing it out.

    Why make a comment about global warming and “apocalyptic heat” in the first paragraph? What does this has to do with the film? This is the kind of out of place commentary people have been pointing out to you recently. Just seems unprofessional to always make a point of making some statement which has nothing to do with the film you are writing about. That would be like me writing a review of a Pixar film and mentioning the AIDS epidemic in the first paragraph

  • MBI

    No, she was absolutely right to go there; the movie starts with apocalyptic heat and it sure doesn’t seem like coincidence that they included that in this explicitly political movie. And reading back, she didn’t even mention “global warming,” just used it as a jumping off point to comment on the grim nature of the movie.

    And you know what, you’re totally wrong, this film was scary! Imelda Staunton makes Harry carve out his own flesh!

  • MaryAnn

    That would be like me writing a review of a Pixar film and mentioning the AIDS epidemic in the first paragraph

    If a Pixar film seemed to be referencing the AIDS epidemic, then why *wouldn’t* I mention it?

  • Josh

    Harry Potter does not reference Global Warming but threw a reference to it into the first paragraph

  • Josh

    I don’t remember any reference to apocalyptic heat in the film. It looked like it was taking place in the summer months at the start of the film but no mention of dangerous and apocalyptic heat. If I missed that, I am sorry.

    And the responses here are exactly the kind of childish babble I was talking about in a previous article. I complimented Mary Ann on her review but stated i did not find the film that scary, certainly not as much as the last two, and I am told I am totally wrong for giving my opinion, although not by MaryAnn this time.

  • MBI

    How am I childish for calling you wrong about the scariness of this movie after you called MaryAnn wrong about the scariness of this movie?

  • Josh

    Let me explain something to you. We live in a world of individuals. There are certain people that try to take away each persons individuality, but we all have opinions that hopefully differ from others around us. Myself writing

    “Great review, although I do not agree one bit that the film was as scary as you thought it was”

    would be considered a personal opinion. I am not signaling out MaryAnn as being wrong for her opinion.

    Your responded with the following.
    “And you know what, you’re totally wrong, this film was scary!”

    How is my opinion wrong just because it differs from yours? It’s childish to even think that.

  • MBI

    Oh Jesus, this whole stupid thing again. I am so sick of seeing this debate on every single website.

    Fine. IN MY OPINION, you are totally wrong. Happy? Satisfied that I wasn’t trying to push some objective truth with my subjective statement? Have I demonstrated that I already understand that I only speak for myself? Or possibly, can it reasonably be assumed in any discussion with me, or any other person you come in contact with, that the subjective nature of reality is already one of the given parameters?

  • Josh

    It’s just a form of showing common courtesy to voice ones opinion instead of trying to claim everyone else is wrong.

  • Little Bird

    But wouldn’t it also be common courtesy not to clutter up this board with your nitpicking whininess?

  • MBI

    Getting back to the movie, I stumbled across a discussion of the movie at everyone’s favorite website, FreeRepublic.com. They were totally reading it as about the War on Terror, with Umbridge standing in for, of all people, Nancy Pelosi. They are free, in this free republic, to read it any way they want, but I wanted to yell at them, hey, did you notice how the evil Ministry **condoned torture**? Hint, hint, what could this be about? And yes, of course, conservative ’50s housewife conformist anti-rebellion nightmare is totally meant to be representative of the Left.

  • nick hazard

    Thanks, MJ — this was a great, insightful review. And I enjoyed the inversion of the A.C. Clarke quip.

  • MaryAnn

    Guys, I think it can be taken as a given that when someone expresses an opinion, this is an opinion and does not need to be prefaced with “in my opinion…”

    That said, coming here an expressing an opinion that does not go beyond “you’re wrong” (whether it’s directed at me or at another commenter) is not gonna cut it. It’s PERFECTLY FINE TO DISAGREE AND TO EXPRESS CONTRARY OPINIONS, but please back them up with a little something. Like this:

    I don’t remember any reference to apocalyptic heat in the film. It looked like it was taking place in the summer months at the start of the film but no mention of dangerous and apocalyptic heat.

    Does the word “apocalyptic” appear in the film with reference to the heat? No. But there are news/radio reports that we hear in the audio referring to temperatures in the 90s and perhaps hitting 100. 90 and 100 degrees in Britain is ridiculous. Except lately, it hasn’t been. So this is a direct reference to what has been happening to Britain, weatherwise, in recent years. The director and/or screenwriter made a conscious choice to include these snippets of audio on the soundtrack. They didn’t need to do that. They could have simply let the obvious atmosphere of the early scenes of the film lend the impression that it was very, very hot. They did NOT need to SPECIFICALLY tell us how very freakishly hot it is.

    Now, if the rest of the film did not make express parallels with the real world, if the rest of the film were not a clear political allegory, then perhaps (depending on what other direction the film went in) the weather might not have been worth mentioning. But the rest of the film IS clear political allegory, and weather today has become a political topic. So I think the heat in the beginning of the film IS tied into the overall attitude of the film. And hence worth mentioning.

    In my opinion. :->

  • MaryAnn

    I enjoyed the inversion of the A.C. Clarke quip.

    I can’t take credit for it. It’s been a truism among fans for many years.

  • Josh

    Surprised you caught that, and that you saw the film as political allegory. Have you ever thought about going into politics MaryAnn? It seems to be a major part of your life. Myself, I don’t think I could ever stomach it, although I do try to be active about causes I care about, most importantly disability rights.

  • Doa766

    just got back from the movie, it’s great, so much, in fact that makes me wish that the first two movies were remake (the just OK, but the 3, 4 and specially 5 are on another level)

    that kid radcliffe gives a perfect leading performance for a blockbuster

    the summer started pretty bad, with spiderman, pirates and shrek being very inferior movies compare to previous entries on the series

    but now with ratatoullie and harry potter things are looking much better, and let’s hope the simpsons and bourne keep it up before it gets serious

  • MaryAnn

    Have you ever thought about going into politics MaryAnn? It seems to be a major part of your life.

    A major part of my life? I don’t think so. But I am aware of the world outside myself, and I don’t know how to turn that off when I watch a movie.

    An interest in and awareness of what’s going on in the world doesn’t necessarily translate into a desire to “go into politics.” Current events affect us all. How our leaders lead — or don’t — affects us all. I can’t understand how anyone with half a brain can NOT be interested in these things.

  • Jennifer

    I’m in the “not scary enough” camp…or maybe I just couldn’t get all caught up into it like I wanted to. Reading the book, I was much more afraid for all the characters in those dangerous moments towards the end, even the second time I read it. This seemed a little milder than it needed to be.

  • Pedro

    this is the best of the books, and definitely not so much for kids as for teens.

    the movies hve been disappointing in reltion to the books so far, let’s hope this one delivers eh?

  • cuser

    MaryAnn,
    I have to agree with your review overall. Definitely had a real scary quality to it and I am pleased to see that this movie, like its novel counterpart, should not be considered “for children”. Harry’s dreams, and his racing mind when it is being infiltrated, were disturbing and vivid. What this movie did wonderfully, I think, is convey the atmosphere and feeling that existed in the book. When reading the book I wanted horribly to see someone give Umbridge what she deserved and watching the movie I felt exactly the same.
    Something you sort of touched super briefly, but did not really mention, was what a knowledge of the book brings to the movie. There was quite a bit left out of the book (as there always will be of course) and many things in the movie may seem irrelevant (though they are actually important) if the book has not been read. I would be interested in the movie’s percieved quality by non readers of HP versus readers.
    Also, without giving anything away, were you (anybody who has read the books) surprised at how they changed the bit with Sirius at the end (and how it could affect the 7th movie pending the upcoming book)?

  • MaryAnn

    I haven’t read the book since it came out, so I can’t make detailed comparisons between it and the film. And I don’t recall how Sirisu is treated differently by the movie. Sorry.

  • zoetree

    I resonated with most everything you observed in your article, but especially the last sentence. I think the best fantasy (and other fiction) is not fluff and escapism at all. It is a mirror which shows reality in a language that sinks deeper into our psyches than cold hard facts, which have a tendency to bounce off people’s heads and roll behind the refrigerator.

    Although I know there are (and should be) differences between books and movie representations of them, I am a bit distracted by the differences the first time through the movie. Then I can watch the movie again more for it’s own value. After the first viewing of OotP, I suspected that it was my favorite so far. After the second time, I am sure.

    Starting with the almost surreal landscape colors of the dry grass in the blazing heat (so glad to hear the weather report in the background), I knew that my suspicions (based partly on the fact that the director, screenwriter, and composer were all new to the series) that this installment would be even more enjoyable to watch than Prisoner of Azkaban would come true. The scary scenes did not seem to me to be like those in horror movies I have seen (which are few) because they were not accompanied by people doing stupid things like not turning on lights before entering a room where they hear a noise. There are several “jump-out-of-your-skin” type moments, though, which I do not recall from previous HP movies. I think Yates is the best director so far at getting the most real and appropriate performances from the actors. I don’t recall any winceworthy moments in respect to line delivery. Staunton’s Umbridge was genius. Radcliff was 100% improved. My favorite may be Lynch. I wonder if she will be an amazing actress or is just simply amazing for this part. Either way, Bravo! to the casting crew.

  • http://missizzy.livejournal.com Isobel

    Re: Josh. Wow, Mary Ann, your trolls are starting to slip into blatancy here.

  • Eric

    I really enjoyed the film, the casting for Umbridge was perfect, and the end sequence was amazing.

    That being said, my only wish was that it was fleshed out just a bit more, maybe 20 min more of film. There were just areas and themes that could have used some detail, some examination.

    I’m still impressed that the people behind the films have managed to continue to improve them and keep them worthwhile.

  • http://www.dubhsidhestudios.com bonnie-ann black

    i agree with eric. i felt the film needed to be a bit longer and flesh out some of the relationships a bit more in order to keep the emotional tension high… 3 short scenes — one at the beginning, middle and near the end — would have done this. on the whole i enjoyed the film, but had just a few nitpicks about the relationship content — or lack of it.

  • Jess

    You’re very rude aren’t you?

    I didn’t agree with your review really, but it’s probably because I’m too familiar with the book. They pretty much destroyed the stories.

    Oh, you haven’t read them?

    I can’t understand how anyone with half a brain can NOT be interested in knowing a story before giving a review on the knockoff.

  • http://www.freewebs.com/jurgan6 Jurgan

    Read more closely, Jess: she said she hadn’t read the book since it came out, meaning she read it when it came out the first time and hadn’t since. The point was she’d forgotten details. And one certainly can review a “knockoff” (completely wrong word, by the way- adaptation is what you were looking for) without seeing the original. Every version should be able to stand alone. Also, like Maryann, I’ve read the book this movie was based on, and like her, I thought both were terrific.