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’