Dir. David Yates. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon
Chris Columbus’ versions of Harry Potter were loving if long-winded, Alfonso Cuaron’s…I hate using this word, but it really was disruptive…and remarkable, and Mike Newell’s clean and effective. If those are all true, then David Yates’ versions are by and large ham-fisted. Yates’ four adaptations are puzzling, heavy on montage, confused about where to place their narrative weight. Where Goblet of Fire used special effects as a tool, Order of the Phoenix begins a trend in which special effects are supposed to be drama unto itself. Think about the way that Harry (Radcliffe) is swept away from Privet Drive early in the movie. These members of the Order swoop through London, past lit-up yachts and the Palace of Westminster. Not to be “Does this make sense?” guy, but does this make sense? Would a group of people who must not be seen on broomsticks fly past all of these people? This is intended, doubtless, as a lovely showstopper, all smudgy blues and shining yellows, but the effects are mediocre; it looks like someone Photoshopped some silhouettes on brooms onto actual footage of London from the Thames, and what should be a stunning moment is a waste of time. This is the movie where every Death Eater has learned to fly about in a plume of black smoke. Wordless spell-casting begins in earnest in this movie, and this is admittedly a different road to hoe. At the same time, that wordless spell-casting coupled with flying smoke cylinders (which are white if the person is good) in front of a mysterious arch makes the movie’s climactic sequences look like a scene out of Super Smash Bros. I have played many hours of Smash, and watched some number of hours too, and I feel confident saying that relative to playing, watching is fairly dull!
Cuaron’s blues are more meaningful than the artificial darkness of Yates’ picture. That Slawomir Idziak photographed Three Colors: Blue as well as this movie is a tragic sort of joke. The movie’s addiction to cool colors is trite, a sort of visual hint that what we’re seeing is edgier than the friendlier color palates of earlier pictures. Comparing Order of the Phoenix to Three Colors: Blue doesn’t do Order of the Phoenix any favors, but Kieslowski’s movie made blue into a mood, chose moments and objects and places to layer over Juliette Binoche. Order of the Phoenix uses blue and white as easily read symbolic accents instead. (It’s also short Binoche, who is arguably the greatest movie actress of all time, so that’s kind of a disadvantage.) Take a scene in the Room of Requirement where shining white Patronuses scamper around a room lit in robin’s egg blue. White is good, blue looks nice next to white and has positive connotations: instant mealy “good guys” lighting. Nor is blue the only color used badly in the production. There was a bathroom at my university which had walls of black tile which were notorious on campus and, incidentally, basically identical to the Ministry of Magic. Occasionally that darkness even works, as it does in the Department of Mysteries; that scene gives us as much of a visual feast as any in the movie, as midnight blue is not typically the color of reflective light in that darkness. All in all, though, the look of the movie is deeply simplistic. In searching for a theme, it falters: it is not bold enough to stand up to Idziak’s earlier work with Kieslowski in the ’80s and ’90s, let alone aggressive like ’70s Nykvist or prodding like ’10s Lubezski.
The great success of Order of the Phoenix, so far as my blood pressure is concerned, is in its ability to sand off Harry’s angst. The great failure of Order of the Phoenix is that it is more confederate than centralized, linked together by a single unifying principle (“fifth Harry Potter movie”) but sadly absent the federalizing elements that would bind its parts together. It’s worth remembering that this book is over 800 pages, and that adapting it to a movie which is safely under two and a half hours is a task beyond the talents of all but the most perspicacious writers. It’s not surprising that the connective tissue of the picture is intertwined with Harry’s capital letter screams, and therein lies the problem. The movie pares away the majority of the St. Mungo’s saga. This is probably the best part of the source material. It is vividly written, exciting, mysterious. There’s some humor (“Said he’d give me another bite if I didn’t shut up”), a peek into magical medicine, a stupendous Easter egg. The Harry-Dumbledore connection, which felt like it had been on the upswing in Goblet of Fire, has been regressing hard all through the novel, and Harry tries to reason (“reason”) his way through it. Best of all, Harry’s morbid self-obsession breaks like a fever after a conversation with Ginny and some perspective about the caprice of Sirius’ caged life. This is the fulcrum of the story, and by including it in the movie, it means that the movie should probably pivot on this sequence as well. And it does! The film gives us a brief vision of Arthur (Mark Williams) under attack, a quick “LOOK AT ME” scene in Dumbledore’s office, and a couple of scenes at 12 Grimmauld Place, including a moment with Sirius (Gary Oldman) explaining the tapestry to Harry. For the most part, they are effective enough, especially that scene with Oldman; the movies cannot give as much time to Sirius’ relationship with Harry as the books, and given just a little bit of daylight Oldman makes that replacement paternal relationship feel genuine. It’s not enough to make Sirius’ death at the end of the picture really stand out, and that’s true at least in part because of how much this movie enjoys amplifying Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), whose affect in these pictures might singlehandedly have seen Hot Topic through the financial crisis. All the same we get the moment; the movie knows that whatever traumas Harry has to fight through in this movie are best fought through with Sirius at his side. The problem is that the movie never takes the time to follow through on a moment like Harry’s conversation with Sirius, because it is so busy bringing up different moments. It’s like if a teacher assigned a reading and just never went over any of the contents with the class later on: what was it actually for, then?
Perhaps the filmmakers looked at that lump of a novel and just shook their heads, knowing that getting a third of those ideas into a movie would be a success. I dunno, call me a curmudgeon, but a montage in which Filch (David Bradley) hangs up framed educational decrees after a four-second vignette details where the idea came from does not make a scintillating picture. One might say the same for a similar montage in which Harry shouts out weird platitudes as the members of Dumbledore’s Army yelp spells; I was going to make a crack about how much more effective that might have been with some bootleg “Eye of the Hippogriff” song playing over it, but then I thought about it a little bit, and yes, that would have been such a breath of fresh air for this movie. Order of the Phoenix is not without some scenes which do a pretty fair job of telling stories within themselves. Harry’s trial is such a scene. The first Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson is as well. Imelda Staunton is uncannily precise as Dolores Umbridge, the church lady of Wizarding Britain, and her head-to-head with Harry, followed (there’s a key word) by the punishment she gives him for contradicting her, is all we need to know that this is a bad, bad person. To a certain extent, the introduction of Grawp falls in that same camp (even if Grawp was always a get out of jail free card for the Trio), and so does the duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore. Those scenes hold long enough to complete a thought, and if the filmmakers had the patience or the willingness to go on another fifteen minutes, it’s not hard to imagine a movie that might have been quite decent in the end. Instead, the movie spends time on what’s fun rather than what’s necessary; how nice it is to watch the kids make Patronuses, but also how useless. We already know how those work thanks to earlier entries in the series, and the time we spend watching an otter or a hare bouncing around the Room of Requirement is an expression of the movie’s indulgence in the details rather than its focus on the big picture.