Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
by Dianne Lawrence
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My yardstick for judging the effectiveness of a film about magic, fantasy, special effects and thrilling, engaging story lines, is how often I am moved to say, with absolute, unfettered glee, “Wow…that was reeeally cool.” Given that yardstick, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the newest offering in the J.K. Rowling’s mega-franchise, falls rather short. Or rather, far from the coolest Potter offering by Alfonso Cuarón, director of 2004’s The Prisoner of Azkaban.
Directed by David Yates and written by Michael Goldenberg, this fifth offering tells a serviceable tale that faithfully moves the Potter experience forward, introduces some interesting new characters, explores some of the growing pains of the adolescent mind and illustrates some basic truths about the battle of good and evil and the nature of fascism. Not too shabby.
The story opens with a serious crime committed by Harry. Dementors have tried to attack his deeply unlikable Muggle cousin, Dudley, and Harry has used a magic spell to dispatch the unwelcome visitors. Using this spell in public, around Muggles, is a big no-no, even if it means saving the life of someone you can’t tolerate. Harry finds himself brought up in court before the Ministry of Magic and barely escapes a rather scathing prosecution by Professor Umbridge, played by Imelda Staunton with a Cheney-sized proportion of deluded self-righteousness. Harry is defended by Hogwarts’ patriarch, Dumbledore, and the vote eventually falls in Harry’s favor. Harry continues to try and warn the Ministry of the return of the source of all evil, Voldemort, but for some strange reason, the Minister for Magic, Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) refuses to believe it’s possible that this evil is alive. He decides things at Hogwarts are spinning out of control and sends along Professor Umbridge to oversee Hogwarts and clean up the unruly atmosphere by any means possible.
So fascism comes to Hogwarts in a pink wool suit, tight smile, accusing glint in her eye and a taste for punishment. New rules are nailed up daily, and the students are stripped of their right to practice real magic in favor of theoretical magic and textbooks, not unlike Bush’s push for better test scores from memorized answers at the expense of real learning. Umbridge is enjoying her increasing grasp of power with unsavory relish, like any self-respecting evil dictator would. One can imagine the MISSION ACCOMPLISHED sign behind her as she reaches total authority with the banishment of Dumbledore. Am I detecting a theme?
Harry, like any normal teen who is called a liar, attacked by demons and nearly expelled from school, is feeling misunderstood and disillusioned. He is acting more and more isolated from his magical family, but his good nature is won over by his schoolmates and pressed into the service of a cause greater than his cranky mood: training them to prepare to fight the coming evil of Voldemort. Some show clear talent and end up as the group who eventually do battle, teaching Harry that group support trumps isolation and brooding.
And so it goes, through Harry’s first kiss and romantic betrayal, fascism’s eventual humiliating downfall, some ripping good wizard battles, Harry’s true teen battle with a budding internal, evil presence and more family backstory (some of which reveals Harry’s heroic father in an unsavory light). As usual, there is some great scene-chewing by the best of the Brit acting family. Emma Thompson’s breakdown as she is about to be thrown out by Umbridge is comical and sad all at once. Gary Oldman brings mesmerizing dignity and depth to his touching interaction with Harry. Helena Bonham Carter as a distorted beauty, wrapped in a package of insanely out-of-control evil, inspires some real “Wow, that was cool” creepiness. A creepiness, dread or scariness that the evil Voldemort just doesn’t evoke, and which is sorely missing in this well-told but ultimately unmoving episode.
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