Reviewed by Sam Hatch
J.K. Rowling's bank-breakingly profitable literary saga (about young wizards inhabiting an undetected realm of magic lurking between the cracks of our 'real' world) may be building up to a massive denouement, but the truncated film versions of her stories are still a few years behind. As the books grow progressively larger (and increasingly distant from their 'children's story' origins), there's been a daunting task of trimming them down to under three hours' screen time. Regular scribe Steve Kloves decided to sit out this play, allowing Michael Goldenberg to step in for a go. And while this film is the first in the series to really betray the fact that it's omitting numerous elements, Goldenberg has managed to retain the heart and spirit of the story – namely that Harry Potter is finally learning that the greatest illusion in his life is the notion that he can escape a fate that will inexorably culminate in a deadly confrontation with the series' Darth Vader substitute, Lord Voldemort.
By now Potter has morphed into an angst-ridden youth, but what's refreshing in this coming of age tale is that he has every reason and right to be one. His friends haven't been writing much. He's still living with a clan of odious relatives who all hate him. His mentor, Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, is openly shunning him. And then there's the nasty fact that his parents are still both dead, murdered by a fiend who has since returned from the grave in order to finish the job by erasing Harry Potter from existence.
The world's most talented wizards are all quaking in their (leather) boots just thinking about what is in store for the youth, but he's the one who actually has to live it out. While on one hand viewers may miss the eager young boy whose only wish was to get back to school in time to levitate crap and hang out with his friends, the darker Harry is much more interesting and complex. And who wouldn't be moody in this kid's shoes? He should be listening to a ton of Dead Can Dance albums and living in a black-curtained dorm room loaded with posters of Robert Smith. (And isn't it cool that the kids are now listening to rock music in the Gryffindor common room instead of just polishing their wands in silence?)
At the end of Goblet of Fire, Harry faced down the distorted noseless form of Lord Voldemort and watched as his classmate Cedric Diggory got annihilated by that malicious wizard. One would naturally conclude that this chain of events would lead to an all-out war amongst the magical community, with Dumbledore leading the charge of good guys. What happens instead is that the head of the Ministry of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) refuses to believe the frightening tale. He then accuses Potter of being party to an attempt at overthrowing the current Minister so that Dumbeldore himself can take the throne. From here the story of Phoenix is essentially a set of characters spinning their wheels, trying to stay alive while waiting for the rest of the world to acknowledge what most people already know. Kind of like when the Europe was awaiting America's entry into the Second World War, but with more broomsticks and mystical creatures.
It's interesting to contemplate how an entire generation has grown into young adulthood while reading and watching the Harry Potter series. Likewise, it's amazing to see how old the main cast has become, when it doesn't feel as though the film series began all that long ago. But take one look at a photo from the first film and you'll see the contrast between Potter portrayer Daniel Radcliffe's then cherubic cheeks and the tall, lanky form he now cuts (he must be laying off of the Every Flavor Beans, which reminds me that the magical candy is sorely missing this time around!). Radcliffe's also grown as an actor, and beginning with The Prisoner of Azkaban (under the tutelage of the brilliant director Alfonso Cuaron) has been encouraged to stretch out in the role. Indeed, as the story grows darker and Harry is less willing to invite others into his world of pain, Radcliffe is forced to portray the character's inner struggle without the help of copious amounts of dialogue. The dialogue that is present has also changed, with more slangy britspeak (snogging, tosspot) that further cements the notion that these kids aren't eleven anymore.
In Phoenix, while Potter finds that summer life amongst his muggle relatives (check out Harry Melling returning as Dudley Dursley, who has suddenly grown into a lumbering hip-hop mook) is predictably miserable; he later discovers that Hogwarts no longer feels like home either. His summer vacation (holiday, for you non-Yanks) is cut short following an unlikely attack by the Ministry-controlled soul-sucking reaper/wardens the Dementors. Potter is forced to use magic in the muggle world to save the life of his despised cousin, and is soon sentenced to trial by the Ministry of Magic. In the meantime he is acquainted with a secret organization of Dumbledore loyalists known as ‘The Order of the Phoenix' (named after the headmaster's affinity for the titular bird with the flammable life cycle).
There are some new faces here (such as Natalia Tena's ever-morphing Nymphadora Tonks and George Harris' Kingsley Shacklebolt, who are mainly present as Easter Eggs for those who have read the books), but it is much more delightful to run into characters from Azkaban such as David Thewlis' Remus Lupin and Gary Oldman's Sirius Black (the latter was absent from the previous film except for a brief CG appearance in a pile of fireplace embers). It's quite amazing to note the bulk of important British thespians who take time to appear in these films, and even more so when one realizes that in most cases they will only earn a few minutes of time on screen. Apart from those mentioned, Michael Gambon returns as Dumbledore, Maggie Smith as McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane as the benevolent giant Hagrid and Emma Thompson once again disappearing into the role of Sybil Trelawney. It's also nice to see Brendan Gleeson getting to play the real ‘Mad Eye' Moody instead of portraying an imposter pretending to be Moody.
On the villainous side of the story, Jason Isaacs once again reprises his Nazi-esque role as the ubermensch Death Eater Lucius Malfoy, and Ralph Fiennes returns as Malfoy's deformed and demented leader Lord Voldemort. Helena Bonham Carter joins the cast as Sirius Black's imprisoned relative Bellatrix Lestrange, another pureblood hardliner who was responsible for the cruel deaths of Hogwarts student Neville Longbottom's parents. And while she does a remarkable job during her very small amount of scenes, it's Imelda Staunton's Ministry representative Dolores Umbridge (another typical Rowling play on words, this time on ‘dolorous' and ‘umbrage') who is the film's most deliciously hateful villain.
Umbridge's evil is infinitely more outrageous (and irritating), since it's covered up by the exterior of an overly gleeful, treacle-oozing older woman who wears nothing but pink (except for her black Ministry robe – which still sports a pink collar) and is obsessed with cute kitty paraphernalia. She's an inflated caricature of the classic abrasive schoolmarm, and her intolerant actions fuel the bulk of the story with a building sensation of outrage. Staunton's performance as this Hot Pink Hitler is fantastic, and even when she condemns Potter to a torturous after-school punishment (wherein traditional chalkboard phrases of atonement are literally burnt into your flesh), she still manages to conclude the session with a creepily cheerful giggle.
The insidiously upbeat Umbridge abuses her status at the Ministry and worms her way from the new Defense of The Dark Arts instructor to a higher position within Hogwarts' faculty, with an eye on usurping Dumbledore as headmaster. She's a teacher who hates children, and is an obsessive compulsive nightmare who will do horrible things to sustain her illusory outlook that everything is just peachy. She begins her reign of terror with the help of groundskeeper Filch (David Bradley), who desecrates the walls of Hogwarts by posting her numerous decrees, banning everything from Quidditch to pop music to members of the opposite sex being closer than eight inches in proximity of one another. It's an oppressive regime akin to the sinless community established in Footloose, only Kevin Bacon isn't around to save the day with dance moves. Instead, we have (aside from Potter of course) the Weasley twins Fred and George, who mount a rousing firework-laden invasion of the Hogwarts equivalent of the SAT test, the OWLs.
Hogwarts is very much another character within the story, and while some of its charm has been left on the floor (no more do comedic ghosts roam its hallways), it's still adorned with 'alive' oil paintings and retains the Escheresque stairways that constantly shift about. Its very walls seem to be rebelling against the treacherous beast ruling over its corridors, for soon enough Neville discovers a selectively appearing secret room in which the students can practice magic away from the prying eyes of Umbridge and her newly appointed squad of student inquisitors (of whom Draco Malfoy and his crew are eager participants).
Since Umbridge feels it unwise for students to learn any defensive spells apart from what they read in books, a cabal of rebellious classmates turns to Harry so that he may teach them his skills at repelling dark and mysterious things. He gives a speech to his classmates about the fact that combatting evil is never as glamorous as it sounds, and it's sobering material that could have been lifted right out of William Munny's mouth in Unforgiven. He rightly points out that people tend to focus on the adventurous angle of battle while omitting the potential for a grisly death.
Now that the Ministry has corrupted itself from within a la the Imperial Senate from Star Wars, and Dumbledore is considered a persona non grata who may not be followed without punishment (much like the Dalai Lama), Potter's group decides to practice their spells in secret – going by the moniker Dumbledore's Army. This martial midsection of the film brings a much needed sense of positivism and levity, and even perpetual rule-worshipper Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) seems to revel in the act of betraying the laws of the draconian school administration.
Watson and Rupert Grint (the latter as the ginger-haired Ron Weasley) have also grown as actors. There's a great scene in which Hermione's failed attempts at explaining a female's tangled hormonal condition to the completely clueless Ron leads to all of them spontaneously bursting into laughter. It's a wonderful scene that counters all of the bleakness in the story – showing that the three kids glimpsed in the first film are still in there somewhere, and are able to laugh at the absurdity of life.
As escapist fantasy, it's great stuff. It's high school life exploded to insane proportions. If I were a teen again I'm sure I'd rather be in the world of Hogwarts instead of a 'normal' school, regardless of the fact that Potter's universe can be far more deadly. Indeed, Rowling's mythos seems to treat the demise of innocence when one enters adulthood as literal death. The gauntlet is laid down in this film that Potter will have to fight an enemy to the death before his eighteenth birthday. With this sort of doom on the horizon, he still revels in the intervening moments of joy, such as a first kiss (which he later describes as ‘wet'). Unfortunately, a developing romance with returning character Cho Chang (Katie Leung) is left twisting in the wind during the second half of the film.
Like the other Potter films, much of the plot is fairly episodic in form, with a series of vignettes strung together like highly enjoyable pearls. While some bemoan this fact, I find that it consistently injects life into the proceedings. If you grow weary of any one plot point, you know there's another mysterious moment just lurking around the bend. Oftentimes the adults of the story merely serve as a form of Deus Ex Machina, randomly appearing to save our (not as) diminutive hero in his time of need. This can be convenient from a plot angle, but it also pinpoints the fact that our heroes are still just children, and are still in need of some assistance when things get dire. Just as people cheered when Yoda finally did some butt-kicking in Attack of the Clones, folks will be thrilled to see Dumbledore doing more than just speaking kind words from behind a podium. His magical display of force is great work with some very imaginative CG effects.
Thankfully, the other computer graphics work is essentially just as strong as in the past few films. The all-CG character Grawp isn't quite as amazing as he's meant to be (he was created with a new format called 'Soul Capture', but he isn't that much more interesting to look at than the bathroom-marauding troll in the first film), and perhaps the half-horse, half-human Centaurs could have looked more realistic at times. Unfortunately, now that the series' digital wizards have fine-tuned the look of the magical broom-riding sport Quidditch, the game is wholly absent from this film. However, there is a great scene involving members of The Order cruising over the river Thames early on in the film. The Dementors have also slightly evolved, and are very creepy when juxtaposed against the very realistic looking atmosphere of a British train depot.
A new creature to the series is the thestrel, a skeletal horse-like creature that appears only to those who have had death impact their lives. They represent a strong undercurrent of the film in that the world is much more of a gray area than most are willing to believe. Real life Irish Potter fanatic Evanna Lynch got the role of a lifetime as the creepy yet insightful Luna Lovegood, who helps Harry learn the lesson of finding good in things that are different. In turn, he learns from both Sirius and a glimpse into the history of Severus Snape (Alan Rickman, fantastic as always) that there is darkness present in even the most benign of protagonists. There's no ‘ring of power' present in the tale, but Harry must still undergo a very Frodo-like trial by fire in which he must face his own potential for evil while relearning how to reach out for help and trust in his friends.
By now the series is essentially a self-reliant machine, and with the very talented work of set designer Stuart Craig (check out the numerous amazing interiors of the Ministry of Magic, including the creepy, black-tiled Hellraiser look of the Deparment of Mysteries) and a returning cast of high quality actors, it would take a really poor director to completely muck up the works. Potter newcomer David Yates is known primarily for his work for British Television, but he acquits himself admirably here, even if as a visualist he's ultimately not in the same league as the previous directors Mike Newell and Alfonso Cuaron.
Likewise, screenwriter Michael Goldenberg has allayed fears that anyone other than Steve Kloves at the keyboard might derail the project. There's even a new composer on deck, and Phoenix scorer Nicholas Hooper barely uses the established themes John Williams first unveiled six years ago. He creates a heavier, darker score that even incorporates electric guitar at one point. Yet for all these changes and the often choppy nature of the editing, coming back to the filmed world of Harry Potter is like putting on a comfortable old pair of shoes.
Even if the stories were entirely absent of subtext and depth, I think some of us would still keep returning just for the ‘family reunion' feel of it all. We've watched these people grow up, and every year or so it's great to catch up with the gang and see what everyone's been up to. Thanks to the vision of J.K. “Richer-than-The-Queen” Rowling and this dedicated crew and huge cast of talented actors, there really is a world of magic living parallel to our own. The next time these two realities intersect, I'll be there with a box of chocolate frogs in hand.