On the way home from the midnight screening of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, my 10-year-old daughter/resident Harry Potter fanatic and I had a lively discussion about the books versus the films, which of the five Harry Potter films she likes the best, and which stay truest to the books from which they are adapted. Interestingly, her least favorite film of the series to date is my favorite -- the fourth film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (I actually prefer Alfonso Cuarón's directing for Prisoner of Azkaban, and would love to see him back at the helm for the seventh film, but I like better the storyline of Goblet of Fire).

Although I agree with other Harry Potter fans who've said the fourth book was overlong and could have perhaps been shorter without losing much, I felt that the fourth film did an excellent job of trimming away a lot of the fat, while focusing on those key points that drove the plot forward along the arc of the overall series. Screenwriter Steve Kloves, who wrote the scripts for both the first four films before deciding to take a break this time around, did a nice job of taking rather lengthy books (448 and 636 pages, respectively, in the hardcover editions) and shaving a considerable amount of plot and detail away while still retaining the key elements necessary both for telling a compelling story and moving it forward. The story arc started to get darker with the fourth book, but it's really in Order of the Phoenix that we start to see that boy wizard Harry, while still a hero, has (like most good classic heroes) just as many flaws and foibles as any other teenager. He is The Boy Who Lived, yes, but he still gets crushes on girls, and agonizes over all the things any other boy his age would worry about. He almost finds it harder to talk to pretty classmate Cho Chang (Katie Leung, with whom Radcliffe gets to share a much-ballyhooed screen kiss this time around) than to fight against the evil Voldemort.

In the fourth and fifth books, Harry as a character starts to gain a depth and complexity that really flesh him out as a character; the relationships between Harry and his friends, and Harry and his godfather, Sirius, grow more complicated as well. Daniel Radcliffe, who has proven himself to be a capable and talented young actor since we first saw him as a fresh-faced 12-year-old way back in 2001 in Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, really started growing into his role in Goblet of Fire, and here in Order of the Phoenix he continues to push himself as an actor, showing us both the dark and light sides of Harry's character and personality with a depth and subtlety that belies his years. The chemistry among Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) gets better with each film; these kids have grown up together on the sets of the films, and the early awkwardness that was sometimes there in the first couple films is completely gone at this point.

Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (who also penned the very excellent screenplay for 2003's mightily overlooked Peter Pan) follows Kloves' lead here, with a lean script that hits on the most salient points we need to know to keep things moving toward what everyone knows is coming in the seventh (and presumably final) book in the series: the penultimate battle between Harry and his archenemy, Voldemort. Goldenberg faced a challenging task; not only is Order of the Phoenix a whopping 896 pages long, but it has a lot in there that's pretty crucial to what's coming in the next two books, and it must have been agonizing to decide what would end up in the film and what wouldn't.

One of the things that's not in the film is everyone's favorite wizard sport, Quidditch, although director David Yates does try to make up for the lack of it with a nifty scene of witches and wizards zipping through London at night on their brooms. The rest of the special effects are as nice as you'd expect from a Harry Potter film, although visually I think the third and fourth films were a bit more impressive. There are a few plot points from the book that get left out of the film or changed (and no, I'm not telling you what they are, because they would be major spoilers). There's also a fair amount of background around the Order of the Phoenix that the film seems to assume you'll either know going in, or will be able to surmise if you're one of the 10 people left on the planet who hasn't read the books or at least seen the previous films. I know the books well enough that I could fill in the blanks, but if I was watching this film as a standalone, without being very familiar with the books, I might have gotten a bit confused from time to time.

The final battle scene is pretty spectacular and tense, although there's a moment at the crux of it that should have a huge emotional impact that somehow just seemed a bit "meh" to me. I was fully prepared to have tears rolling down my cheeks at that scene, and I didn't, so make of that what you will. It's hard to put my finger on exactly why -- I can't fault the acting, because it was really superb all the way around, and it's certainly not the storyline itself, because I bawled my eyes out reading the same scene in the book. The most accurate thing I can say about it is that the final sequence, and particularly this scene, feel both rushed and truncated, as if the director suddenly realized the film was going to run over two hours so they'd better hurry this up already.

The whole "Order of the Phoenix" bit of the story background also feels like it got a bit of a short-shrift; there are characters who play fairly major roles in the book to whom we are barely introduced here. I can understand the decision to do so, though; Goldenberg and Yates keep the focus of the film mainly on Harry's conflict with a new nemesis, the wretched Dolores Umbridge, played to perfection by Imelda Staunton. I loathe this character even more than Voldemort, and that's saying a lot; Voldemort is evil of one sort, but at least he's honest about being evil. He is what he is, he makes no bones about it, and he glories in his badness. Umbridge, on the other hand, is evil sugar-coated with self-righteousness and the appearance of good intentions, when at the core she's as rotten as Lucius Malfoy or any of the other Death-Eaters -- and Staunton captures the character perfectly, adding just the right touches of malice and madness to make the audience cringe whenever she's onscreen.

Though it feels a bit understated from time to time, Harry Potter and Order of the Phoenix is a solid, enjoyable addition to the Harry Potter franchise. Yates captures the tense, dark tone of the book, the script hits on the key plot points and keeps us engaged, and the acting is solid all the way around. I especially want to note Radcliffe's performance as aforesaid, but I'd be remiss if I didn't also note that both Watson and Bonnie Wright, who plays Ginny Weasley, are both really strong in this film. Watson in particular could have a solid career as an adult if she chooses her post-Harry Potter scripts with care and forethought. Time will tell how the fifth film ranks among all the series in the end, but Harry Potter fans will enjoy this film overall; it's a good warm-up to the final two films, which will be here before you can say "Dumbledore."
categories Reviews, Cinematical