You have to feel at least some sympathy for any filmmaker who would tackle Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Not only is it the longest of the Harry Potter books, and thus one of the most difficult to compress to a single movie, it has also been regarded by many fans as something of a disappointment. Despite its length, and despite the fact that a significant character dies, not a lot seems to have happened by the time the story ends. Lessons are learned and secrets revealed, but of all the instalments in the series to date, it ends on the least satisfying note.
Even so, despite all these disadvantages, surely a better film could have been made than this one. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a dark, grim, serious film, with little of the joy or whimsy that animated the first four movies — and while some of this can be chalked up to the source material, at least some of the blame has to go to the filmmakers, too.
First, the source material. The last film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, ended on a dark and serious note — with the return of the Dark Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and the murder of a student by his hands — but it also ended on a note of potential excitement: with the Dark Lord back, the war between his followers and those on Harry Potter’s (Daniel Radcliffe) side must be about to begin!
But it turns out that Voldemort keeps a low profile throughout most of Order of the Phoenix, partly because he wants the wizarding world to think that rumors of his return have been greatly exaggerated. And sure enough, when Harry Potter and his mentor, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), try to tell their fellow wizards and witches that Voldemort has come back, they are accused — by the government, the media and their friends — of lying and fearmongering.
And so Harry, tormented by nightmares, waits for his enemy to show his face to the world. But Harry also waits for lots of other people. His best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) don’t write him all summer, and for some reason Dumbledore seems to be avoiding him, too. And we’re more than halfway into the film before we get a glimpse of Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), the friendly half-giant gameskeeper, who has been away on a secret mission.
As if all the waiting weren’t bad enough, Harry finds, when he gets to school, that he must spend a lot of time with teachers he hates. It turns out that his nightmares are not merely dreams, but signs of a link between his mind and Voldemort’s — so Dumbledore sends him to Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), the potions professor who loathes him, for special lessons on how to block Voldemort’s influence on him.
And then there is Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), the Ministry of Magic official who has been appointed the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher — not so much because she knows how to teach, but because the government wants to keep a close eye on Dumbledore and prevent any more rumors about the Dark Lord from spreading. When Harry does insist, in class, that Voldemort is back, Umbridge summons him to a form of detention that Ron and Hermione rightly call “torture.”
And where, in all this, is the sense of wonder and enchantment? Once again, Harry learns a few new things about Hogwarts and the wizarding world in general, but there is little sense of awe about it this time. (When a door to a secret room appears in the wall of one corridor, it is a convenient plot device, nothing more.) And where is the humor? At times, the film aims for a little levity, but more often than not, these moments feel forced, dutiful, even recycled from the previous movies.
Worst of all, with the exception of Rickman’s delectably devious Snape, there are few if any of the “grace notes” that have made each of the previous films memorable in their own way. No matter how complicated the plots, no matter how outrageous the special effects, the Harry Potter movies have always made time for the characters and given them opportunities to shine: think of Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) learning to dance in Goblet of Fire, or of Remus Lupin’s (David Thewlis) heart-to-hearts with Harry Potter in Prisoner of Azkaban. But there is little of that here.
Indeed, one of the striking things about Order of the Phoenix is how it brings back so many talented British actors — including Brendan Gleeson (Mad-Eye Moody), Julie Walters (Mrs. Weasley), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall) and Gary Oldman (Sirius Black) — and gives them relatively little to do. And when Helena Bonham-Carter shows up near the end as one of Voldemort’s minions, you wonder why her arrival is treated with such fanfare, or why an actress of her stature was hired for what is little more than a cameo. Yes, no doubt we will see more of her in future films, but in this film, she’s just one of the many big names doing nothing in particular.
Why does the fifth Harry Potter film show so little feeling for its characters? Possibly because it is directed by David Yates, the fourth director to work on this series and the first with no experience on a Hollywood movie; most of his work so far has been in British television. Perhaps he was too busy learning the ropes of such a technically challenging film to keep his eye on the story’s heart and soul.
But I think the bigger problem is the screenplay, by Michael Goldenberg (whose last film was the live-action adaptation of Peter Pan). The first four movies, all of which were written by Steve Kloves, had to leave out bits of the books, and sometimes the omissions were puzzling, but at least they held on to the story’s central thread. The new film, on the other hand, is written in a much clumsier fashion.
Take Harry’s budding romance with Cho Chang (Katie Leung). The build-up to their first kiss is awkward and unconvincing, so much so that it has to be followed by a scene in which Hermione explains to Harry all the emotions that Cho must be feeling. And then, the next time we see Cho, the tone abruptly shifts, and the relationship between these two characters is left without any resolution at all.
In addition, the film introduces significant characters only to ignore their significance to the story later on. We see Sirius’s grumpy house-elf, Kreacher (voice of Timothy Bateson), but not the role he plays behind the scenes. We see Dumbledore come to the defense of Sybil Trelawney (Emma Thompson), the Divination teacher, after Umbridge has her fired — it’s one of the film’s rare touching moments — but the movie never underscores why Dumbledore is so protective of her, nor does it tell us the full significance of the prophecy she once made, and which Voldemort now seeks.
Even more puzzling is the climactic battle between the Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix — the forces loyal to Voldemort and Dumbledore, respectively — in the underground headquarters of the Ministry of Magic. Good guys and bad guys show up at arbitrarily convenient moments, as though they were waiting to make the most dramatic entrance; and the battle revolves, in part, around an archway with a curtain, the significance of which is never explained — even though it plays a crucial role in what is supposed to be one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes.
At a few points in this film, we get flashbacks to Harry’s younger days — to scenes from the earlier movies. It is startling to realize just how much growing up Harry has done since the first film came out seven years ago. It is also sobering to think that a series that began with such potential is beginning to show serious signs of sequel fatigue. Let us hope that the franchise gets its second wind, and soon.
2 stars (out of 4)
Talk About It
1. Sirius Black tells Harry Potter that he’s not a bad person, just a good person that bad things have happened to. Do you agree? Have good things happened to Harry? What has he done himself that might make him a good person or a bad person?
2. Sirius then says, “We’ve all got light and dark inside us. What matters is what part we choose to act on.” What choices does Harry make? What about the scene near the end when Harry tries to do something really bad but is told he did not succeed because he didn’t really “mean” to do it? Do you think he “meant” to?
3. It has been said that the greatest trick the Devil ever played was convincing the world he did not exist. How do Voldemort’s actions in this film parallel that?
4. Harry and Dumbledore are accused of lying and fearmongering when they say that Voldemort has returned. When have you been accused of lying because you said something you knew to be true? How did you handle it? How have you decided who to believe when other people have told you that someone is lying?
The Family Corner
For parents to consider
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images. Harry and his closest friends are 15 years old when this story takes place, and the action is appropriate to audiences of that age but might be too scary or intense for younger children. The violent and frightening images include duels with wands, Dementors attempting to suck the souls out of people, and words being cut into the backs of students’ hands as punishment. Two boys also create foods that make faces break out in boils and other ailments.
— A version of this review was first published at Christianity Today Movies.