Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I caught Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix tonight with Courtney and Bob and Bob’s sister, Sandi.

Here’s the scoop.


You should probably turn back right now if you haven’t read the book and don’t want to have any of the details ruined.

Still here? Let’s do this.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read the book and I don’t remember the details, so I wasn’t aware of the changes and omissions made from J.K. Rowling’s original manuscript by Michael Goldenberg, who’s doing his very first Potter adaptation here. Courtney was annoyed by some of the blatant changes (such as the film’s changing of who ratted out the Order of the Phoenix and its depiction of Sirius Black’s fate) and worried that she was being too picky, but I totally know where she’s coming from when it comes to feeling protective of something that means a lot to you. It’s why I got so bent out of shape by how terrible I felt Superman Returns to be, for example.

I’ve tended to give the Harry Potter movies a pass when it comes to what’s changed and what’s missing, particularly given how richly and intricately imagined Rowling’s books have been. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (which is my second favorite of the books after Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), for example, was the most brutally streamlined of the films so far but also probably my favorite one because of it. I guess it’s all in what you cut, how you cut it and, more importantly, how you compensate for what isn’t there.

Therefore, I didn’t really mind that the movie turned Cho Chang into the tattler instead of her friend (as it was in the book), because I can see how they were trying to streamline things. (It’s kind of like how I loved Peter Jackson’s decision to combine some characters to play up Arwen’s role in his Lord of the Rings movies, and I’m not just saying that because I enjoy any excuse I can get to look at Lips Tyler. I mean, Liv Tyler.)

(What was I talking about? Oh, yeah. Harry Potter.)

I was, however, disappointed with how the movie handled the fate of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) at the hands of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). I think I can see what Goldenberg and new-to-the-franchise director David Yates were trying to accomplish by having Bellatrix kill him directly with the Avada Kedavra spell rather than using a simpler spell (as she did in the book) to knock him into the mysterious Veil between Life and Death. I think they wanted the audience to hate her even more, but in doing so they robbed the moment of the mystery (and mysticism) it held in Rowling’s version. The moment happens way too quickly in the movie, and had they done it as it happened in the book I think they could have given that scene more power and weight. More on that later.

Speaking of Yates, let’s talk about this guy for a minute. He’s never made anything remotely this big and is so far best known for his gazillion-Emmy-winning TV movie, The Girl in the CafĂ©. And I’ve got to say, he does an awesome job of holding it all together.

I’ve always thought that this would be the most difficult of the movies to make accessible, partly because Harry spent so much of the book being angry and bitter and often downright unpleasant.

But he’s got good reasons to be all of those things and then some.

At the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the dark lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) — who murdered Harry’s parents so long ago — regained his physical form, murdered one of Harry’s classmates and nearly killed Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) himself.

But rather than the magical community rallying around Harry in what they should all realize is the eve of their darkest hour, most people don’t even believe him. Some turn a blind eye to the news because they’re too terrified to fathom it. Others, however, serve darker interests. Corruption and conspiracy grip even the highest levels of the Ministry of Magic, and The Daily Prophet newspaper — which is the Potter universe’s equivalent of Fox News when it comes to supporting the agenda of its unfair, unbalanced masters — is going to great lengths to paint Harry as a liar or, even worse, a traitor. (One of the headlines, for example, is “Harry Plotter?”)

One thing that Yates does particularly well is giving this film a sense of scope. The fate of the world is literally in the balance here, but 99.9 percent of the population has no idea what’s going on (or how much terrible weight is being carried on the shoulders of a young boy named Harry Potter). But so much of the books (and the previous movies) occurs in the magic world that it’s sometimes easy to forget what’s truly at stake in the larger world. The movie begins with Harry sitting by himself on a swing at a playground, watching a mother trying to soothe her young son who’s just been terrorized by Harry’s ignorant bully of a cousin, Dudley Dursley (Harry Melling), and his equally tiny-minded friends.

When they turn their taunts against Harry, it’s heartbreaking because we all know how much Harry has suffered and how much good he’s done, often at devastating expense to himself. And then these idiots have got the nerve to tease him, when they’ll never know that Harry’s sacrifices and heroics are the only reasons any of them are even alive. Because if Voldemort gets loose, it’s not just the magic world that will suffer. We’ll all be in trouble.

Harry snaps up his wand at Dudley, and the sunny summer sky turns black around them. But Harry didn’t make that happen and knows that whatever’s going on, it isn’t going to be good. So Harry and Dudley take refuge from the storm in an underground passage and all is well and good … until a pair of Dementors — the cloaked, floating ghostly guardians of Azkaban Prison! — show up to suck their souls.

Harry uses magic to save himself and Dudley, but by doing so breaks the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy’s rule numero uno — students aren’t allowed to use magic outside of the school’s walls. Worse yet (in the Ministry of Magic’s eyes, at least), Harry used magic in front of a Muggle (which is a non-magic person like you and me).

Of course, Harry was a) using magic to save Dudley’s life and b) Dudley was unconscious (to the point of nearly being dead) from being soul-sucked anyway.

That doesn’t matter to the cruel Dursleys, with whom Harry spends his summers. And it won’t matter to the Ministry of Magic, which is riddled with evil agents and heinous conspirators looking for any excuse to get Harry out of the picture anyway.

Oh, but Voldemort’s loyal followers — the Death Eaters — aren’t counting on the Order of the Phoenix …

For just as things can’t seem to get any darker or lonelier for Harry Potter, into his room bursts a gaggle of faces old and new. There’s “Mad-Eye” Moody (Brendon Gleesan), whom Harry met in the previous Potter chapter, and then … there’s Tonks.

Oh, yeah.

I’m in love.

Tonks, played by relative newcomer Natalia Tena, has purple hair and sky-blue eyes and lips that don’t need a wand to be magical.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so. When she first appeared on screen, I heard Courtney on the other side of Bob saying, “Tonks is hot!”

Amen, sister.

Okay. So. Tonks and Mad-Eye and their associates whisk Harry on broomback across London, which is cool in itself because it’s another instance of showing these magical sirs and madams taking steps into the outside world because of the changing stakes within their own. They soon arrive at the hidden headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, where Harry meets up with his homegirl Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), his other best friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), Ron’s parents and siblings and, most importantly to Harry, his godfather, Sirius Black.

But it’s not exactly a warm reunion. The adults are clearly worried about something big, and they’re obviously trying to keep things from Harry.

Ron’s dad, Arthur (Mark Williams), takes Harry to his hearing at the Ministry of Magic. And I love the visuals in these scenes. First, they get into a red telephone booth that’s secretly an elevator:

… and then they get into an elevator that moves back into the wall instead of going up or down. I loved it.

Just when things are looking hopeless at Harry’s hearing, in comes Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) to give the tribunal a Batman-sized cage-rattling. Taking particular umbrage to Dumbledore’s appearance — and the subsequent dismissal of the trumped-up charges against Harry — is Senior Undersecretary Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton).

And when the new school year starts at Hogwarts, Umbridge shows up as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher.

Her methods, however, leave a lot to be desired. But it’s not because she’s incompetent. In fact, it would seem that she doesn’t want her students to be able to defend themselves against a threat she swears doesn’t exist.

At Hermione’s urging, Harry takes matters into his own hands and assembles a group of trusted students brave enough to fight back against the coming darkness. Drawing from his past encounters with Voldemort and his followers, Harry sets about to quickly teach his friends what they’ll need to know before it’s too late for all of them.

Things fall apart from there. As Umbridge’s evil grip on the school tightens, Harry finds himself increasingly at the mercy of dark visions suggesting that Voldemort can not only see his thoughts but possibly even control them. And the link between them may be deeper (and darker) than Harry could possibly imagine.

It all builds to an epic battle in the Ministry of Magic itself between Harry’s rag-tag group and the combined forces of Voldemort and his Death Eaters. By the time it’s over, Harry has lost a loved one and discovered his role in a prophecy than can only end in death.

Though the film has a few weaknesses, there’s nothing but strength in its cast. Daniel Radcliffe continues to make Potter fans proud with his increasingly mature and nuanced performances as Harry in these films, and he continues to impress in this latest cinematic chapter. As Hermione and Ron, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint embody every single thing you’ve ever felt in the presence of your own best friends. All three of these kids are awesome, and I’m so glad they’ll be finishing out the movie series. We’re lucky to have them.

The adults are really good, too. Michael Gambon had some impossible shoes to fill when he took over Dumbledore from the late Richard Harris, and this movie gives him the material he needs to truly make the role his own. Gambon effectively puts all of Dumbledore’s power, compassion and understated nobility on display. The ever-excellent Alan Rickman also gets more screen time this time as Severus Snape, and as always he’s so good at putting so much into even the smallest sneers and gestures. Maggie Smith is similarly brilliant in her limited screen time as Professor Minerva McGonagall, with a storyline that allows her to show more of McGonagall’s heart than we’ve previously seen in the films. Smith is particularly good in a scene she shares with Emma Thompson, who expertly brings a level of sadness and vulnerability that you wouldn’t expect out of gawky Professor Trelawney.

The bad guys are way, way bad. Imelda Staunton is particularly nasty as Dolores Umbridge, and the film really plays up the scary depth of her machinations and hypocrisies. Similarly sniveling — in a big, bold way — is Jason Isaacs as the despicable Lucius Malfoy. Helena Bonham Carter is all cruelty and insanity as Bellatrix Lestrange, and how could you expect to ever find a better Voldemort than Ralph Fiennes? The makeup is a lot better this time around, which makes sense because he’s growing stronger and his form is becoming more defined. Still, I wish there was a little more of Fiennes coming through the prosthetics. It’s a small matter.

Anyway, all this cast talk brings me to my two favorite performances:

First up is Gary Oldman, who’s awesome in everything he does. After a lifetime’s worth of quirky roles, it’s nice to see he’s getting the chance to play some good guys. (Look for him as Jim Gordon, the cop who’ll someday be commissioner, in the new Nolan/Bale Batman movies.)

There simply aren’t words for how good Oldman is in this movie, and he deftly balances the weight of Sirius Black’s tragic past with the fierce love he feels for his godson. (His winks to Harry are the best.) It’s a stellar piece of acting.

Also infinitely awesome is Evanna Lynch, who for my money totally stole the show as Luna Lovegood.

Lynch’s performance here is pure, note-perfect gold. Luna seems like a strange girl at first glance, and Lynch really plays that up by always looking slightly away from where you think she should be looking. It’s like she’s simultaneously there and entirely not there at any given moment. Mixed in with her odd demeanor, however, are sweetness, loyalty and heart without equal. One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie is when Luna is in the woods with Harry, telling him about how her mom died but that she’s still got her dad. And then she tells him that she believes everything he says about Voldemort, adding in that her dad believes him, too. Like I said before, Lynch totally stole the show for me.

There are some ways in which the movie drops the wand. I know there’s a lot of novel to compress into just over two hours of movie, but lots of scenes in the movie feel like they end prematurely. Others don’t end at all — they just jump into the next scene. And, as I mentioned earlier, I was a bit confused by the decision to change the way Bellatrix kills Sirius. When Sirius first got zapped he was already a goner, but I thought he and Harry were going to share a really sad moment before he actually passed on. Sirius even turned toward Harry, and I thought, wow, this is going to be a really awesome moment where Sirius knows he’s as good as dead but it’ll take Harry a few seconds to realize it. Instead, Sirius kind of just floats back into the mist, and that’s it. Had they gone with the scenario from the book, there’d have been time for a moment like that. Given how good Oldman was in the rest of the movie, and given the honest-to-goodness chemistry he and Radcliffe share, I really thought he should have gotten a better farewell than that.

Oh, well.

I did, however, love the way they did the final wizard battle. I loved how the magic came out of the wands as wispy spindles of light, and how it danced in time with its caster’s movements. And the big battle between Voldemort and Dumbledore had all of the power and weight that the Star Wars prequels — with the exception of the Obi-Wan/Darth Maul lightsaber duel in The Phantom Menace — were so desperately lacking. The awesome architecture of the Ministry’s innards reminded me of a medieval take on The Matrix, while all the lightning and exploding glass made me think of Highlander.

And when Voldemort gathered up all the glass shards in midair and sent them flying toward Harry and Dumbledore, who put up a magic filter that turned the incoming shards into a harmless breeze of sand … whoa. It was epic, and I loved every second of it.

Flashbacks are also incorporated smoothly and beautifully.

Yates is coming back to direct Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and I hope he tightens up the pacing and improves the overall momentum while simultaneously making each scene feel more complete. That being said, this is a very impressive effort for a director who’s never tackled anything remotely on this scale. And again, it’s difficult to make a two-hour movie out of a novel that’s so lovingly layered. I’m sure he learned big lessons this time that he can incorporate into his next Potter film.

I love the Harry Potter universe. It’s about love and friendship. It’s about believing in yourself and standing up for the people and things you believe in. And it makes kids (of all ages, ahem) excited about reading. Those are all good things in my book.

Speaking of books, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — the seventh and final novel — comes out on July 19. That’s less than a week away.

Was there more to Snape’s shocking action at the end of Book Six than meets the eye?

Will Draco Malfoy actually redeem himself and help the good guys?

Will Ron and Hermione end up together?

Will Ron and Hermione even survive?

Will Harry sacrifice his own life to stop Voldemort once and for all?

It’s going to be awesome, and seeing this movie has gotten me even more excited about reading the final book.

What do you think will happen?