The stakes have risen significantly for Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) in his fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which encompasses David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007). Once there was a time when simply picking out a wand was more than he could handle, now he’s expected to teach a class, raise an army, defend himself and others from the most dangerous wizard in the universe and be a good kisser. When you’re sixteen the world can feel very overwhelming. Harry knows this all too well.
It’s bad enough that Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the dark wizard who murdered Harry’s parents, is trying to take over the world, but now even the usually unassailable Hogwarts is under attack, by the Ministry of Magic, its director Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) and his underling Dolores Umbrage (Imelda Staunton). The Ministry is in denial that Voldemort has returned, the only one who has seen him is Harry, who fought against him the previous movie in a battle that resulted in the death of a student. In a magical world in which pictures move and people can consult with the paintings of dead people, it’s surprising that there’s no way for the dead student to alert the government of his murderer but I’m not an expert in magic.
Sadly, Harry’s word doesn’t hold much store with the ministry but it has convinced Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), who is being ousted as the headmaster of Hogwarts by the Ministry for stirring up trouble where they don’t believe any exists. More distressing still, Dumbledore has distanced himself from Harry, which is nearly too much for the boy to take. He still has his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), and some of his more sympathetic teachers like Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), McGonagall (Maggie Smith), and Mad-Eye Mooney (Brendan Gleeson) but when Umbrage is dispatched to be the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, her not-to-hidden agenda as a ministry spy puts everyone on edge and makes the lessons toothless. The school, which had been Harry’s refuge for such a long time, is now a dreary place. Next to nothing is there to comfort him and, unless I missed it, this is the first Potter picture without a single mention of Quidditch, the wizard sport.
Harry shouldn’t be all that worried, however, the Defense Against the Dark Arts post is beginning to resemble the drummer in Spinal Tap. This is Harry’s fifth year and with it comes his fifth teacher in that position. However, Umbrage isn’t satisfied with a simple teaching job. Soon, with ministry backing, she’s ascended to the rank of headmaster, sacking much of the beloved staff, including Dumbledore. Even the sinister Snape (Alan Rickman) isn’t happy about it. Under Umbrage, the school begins to resemble a strict boarding school from the 1950’s. Umbrage herself is like a demented society housewife with her pink suits, ridiculously high voice and china saucers with kittens on them, all of which move thanks to magic. Yet, she adheres to corporal punishment, insists on socially conservative decorum, and above all, no teaching of practical defense skills because there is absolutely nothing dangerous about the real world. Students are to tuck their shirts in and explicit rules forbid boys and girls from being fewer than eight inches from one another.
The adults and other students implore Harry that this is exactly what Voldemort wants, the neutering of the next generation that could potentially stand against him. Thus, Harry organizes secret meetings among the more rebellious of the student body to teach advanced defensive magic. This leads them to the Room of Requirement, a chamber in the castle that reveals itself only to those that really need it. They call themselves Dumbledore’s Army and commence to learn as much as they can. All the while, Umbrage tightens the screws on the school, romantic feelings begin to blossom between Harry and another student and most disturbing of all, Harry has dreams in which he sees terrible things, all connected to Voldemort.
This is perhaps the least action packed Harry movie of them all, with just two big set-pieces, only one of which is traditional action. The last act of the movie is one sustained impressive chase and battle in the bowels of the wonderfully art directed black marble Ministry of Magic but Yates doesn’t earn any real connection to it. Yates has some considerable skills as a filmmaker but brisk storytelling, like that of Chris Columbus of the first two films, or weirdly stylistic potboilers, like what Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell were able to manage with the next two, aren’t two of them. The pacing is awkward, sequences seem to push and pull at one another, and the tone flips like a switch from dark to light. To save time, there is a montage in the middle that simultaneously shows Umbrage’s iron hand tightening while Dumbledore’s Army surreptitiously grows more confident. It’s an impressive bit of editing and shot making but it fails somewhat because we aren’t invested in either outcome. To its credit, the movie doesn’t drag (it’s the shortest Harry except for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, which was the second half of what was originally going to be one movie), but it doesn’t bounce along either. The constantly driving narrative seems counter-intuitive to Yates’ natural strengths.
He’s very good with actors, some of the regulars give their best performances in Order of the Phoenix, even when they are allowed little time. Rickman is barely in it, yet he dominates our memory. The same can be said for Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather who plays a more central role this go-around even if his paltry screen time remains the same. This further coloring of his character is essential. If there’s a major flaw in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), it’s the far too quick acceptance of Harry and the others of Black, who goes from dangerous criminal to trusted guardian in about the blink of an eye. I know we’re being asked to accept dragons and unicorn blood and all sorts of spells, but that was too much. Staunton is wonderful as the sadistic pink lady, passive aggressive and infuriatingly smug. It’s a performance that comes mainly from posture and voice as she always stands erect but never puffed out, often clutching a bag against her abdomen, and her voice, which is feminine and high, is never mistaken for naive or weak.
Yates’ true talent is in eliciting empathy. Certainly, the central tenant of the Potter tales are a compassion, but Yates distinguishes himself among his peers in the Harry fraternity by most clearly bringing that out. The demands of the action don’t let him linger too often but under his direction we will begin to feel for the heretofore reprehensible Snape in Order of the Phoenix and later on we will get sympathetic portraits of the bully Malfoy (Tom Felton) and even of Voldemort. It seems the only ones beyond redemption in the Potterverse are the odious Dursleys played by Richard Griffith and Fiona Shaw, Harry’s non-magical guardians, who make a brief appearance in the early going of Order of the Phoenix to taunt and harass Harry. I love to hate the pitiful Dursleys. In a series of movies about witches and wizards, these dumb and selfish regular people are our only connection to a world we know. For all the visual wonder in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and there are some truly stunning visuals, the most memorable sight for me is of Griffith’s Uncle Vernon, his tiny eyes straining forward, inelegant in a crude ugly shirt, socks and sandals, tucking an overlong spoon of ice cream under his walrus mustache. There are too few moments of genuine reality in Yates’ vision of the world of Harry Potter, which is a shame, because it’s what he’s best at.