Sunday, July 15, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix / ***1/2 (2007)

The realm of spectacle and sorcery at the heart of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is not the gentle and capricious place that moviegoers were enticed into admiring when this series first came to the cinema six years ago. Gone are the good-hearted and harmless touches of children’s fantasy, their light-weight and colorful textures replaced by shadows, dank exteriors, menace and threat, and an occasional blood splatter thrown in to emphasize the notion of evil being actively at work in the fabric of the story. We have always anticipated the world of Potter and his magical friends to get darker and more solemn, not just because the premise conflicts require it to, but also because it is of the nature of kids to look at their settings in more serious a light when childhood daydreaming is replaced by the reality of adolescence. The safety that comes with innocence – and the prospect of magic itself being a shield from all grave conflict – is but a self-delusion long left in the dust when the teenage heroes return to Hogwarts for what is to be their fifth school year. They are at the forefront of life-altering decisions and situations now, and every thought they have or move they make requires more specific consideration, lest they fall into traps designed to crush their aspirations as prospering professionals in a world of wizardry.

Seeing so much more than surface adventure in the “Harry Potter” stories is routine for those who know the plot so well and so thoroughly; here is a long and intricate narrative that is not merely about quests or vulgar displays of sorcery and trickery, but about identity and self-discovery in a time when threat requires likeable and identifiable young protagonists to tread cautiously on their own feet. J.K. Rowling’s books identified this prospect right from the beginning, and now, after a cluster of film adaptations that have allowed special effects to upstage needed character development and storytelling, the screen renditions are finally getting it right. “Order of the Phoenix,” part five in this seven chapter series, is the best and most plausible cinematic excursion of the Potter franchise thus far, an engaging balance between visuals, fanciful details, characterization, plot strategy and psychology that fully understands the potential of its source material. It is also a noteworthy achievement in the sense that it manages to successfully streamline a 900-page novel into a two-and-a-half-hour screen vehicle without appearing as if it is leaving behind crucial details. Taut, well-packaged and edited with all the energy we expect of a dedicated filmmaker, this is the kind of endeavor that book enthusiasts continually pray for but almost never obtain.

Following the tragic events that closed “Goblet of Fire,” this movie opens with Potter, back at home for the summer with the Dursleys, struggling with the realization that his would-be arch-nemesis Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is alive and well, and probably ready to launch a full-scale attack against the wizarding world without a moment’s notice. His overgrown and spiteful cousin mocks his visible dejection, not entirely understanding the gravity of Potter’s situation (he was, after all, present when schoolmate Cedric Diggory was mercilessly murdered by one of Voldemort’s death eaters), but before the troubled wizard has a chance to react to the spitefulness of the playground bully standing before him, they are both overrun by a pair of Dementors, the magical guardians first seen in “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” whose desire to attack them suggests they are now under control of the Dark Lord himself. Harry’s knee-jerk reaction causes him to use a spell against the dark shadowy figures, but because it is illegal in the magic world to use sorcery in front of an ordinary human, news arrives soon thereafter that the Ministry of Magic has expelled him from Hogwarts as punishment for his actions. Never mind that he was protecting himself against creatures that wanted to suck away his life essence, of course.

What this impulsive decision does is launch Harry head-first into a premise shrouded in mystery, political unrest and intrigue. Voldemort’s return may have instigated a sense of panic and somberness in those who believe Harry’s accounts of his resurrection, but it has also paved the way for the wizard society’s most notable magic practitioners to organize a full-scale counter-assault on the lord and his minions; collectively, these beings call themselves the Order of the Phoenix, and exist in secret in order to keep close tabs on the looming threat of the dark lord and all those that follow him. Unfortunately for them, the Ministry of Magic, an establishment that fancies itself the supreme rule of its respective society, refuses to acknowledge Voldemort’s return, instead choosing to believe that the proclamations of one Harry Potter are the diatribes of an insane and attention-seeking teenager who wants everyone to feel sorry for him. They do much in their power to tarnish the reputation of those who follow through with that principle, including Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, who does everything in his power to make it known that ignorance of the obvious does not indicate one will be automatically spared from Voldemort’s wrath.

What all this means for director David Yates is that his groundwork is ripe for all sorts of new and unique possibilities for this franchise, and here he orchestrates an on-screen clash between good and evil that is among one of the most effectively staged in the genre. It is complex, meditative and rather inspired in the way it allows the familiar tug-of-war fantasy ideals to be combined with elements of human drama, political intrigue and coming-of-age values – for once, the special effects are less sensational, and the foundation for which they are allowed to happen becomes the center of the picture. What this ultimately does is force the young actors to do more than just read dialogue on screen, something which was rather abundant in early pictures. Do they stand up to the task? I think so. Radcliffe finally seems comfortable as the title character, a boy who is growing into himself and realizing that the vibrant and promising world which he lives in isn’t necessarily as wholesome as he would have liked it to be, and his co-stars Emma Watson and Rupert Grint do a fine job of understating their tendency to go over-the-top with the material, approaching it this time as if it were straight teen drama.

The supporting players pull in some equally-fine work. Imelda Staunton is delicious as the devious and sickeningly sweet Dolores Umbridge, Hogwarts’ newest instructor, who is placed there by the Ministry of Magic in order to monitor, and silence, the rhetoric going around regarding the supposed resurrection of a certain dark lord who shall not be named. The same can be said of Helena Bonham Carter, who falls so effortlessly into the role of the wicked and merciless Bellatrix Lestrange that you get the sense she has practiced for it long before cameras started rolling. As always, of course, we see respectable work come from the likes of Gary Oldman and Michael Gambon, but what is rather livening about their presence in “Order of the Phoenix” is that they aren’t just channeling themselves into narrow characterizations anymore. This time, they’re not just inspired by the material, but genuinely believe in it.

The look of the film is brilliant in the way it makes the sinister look so piercing and beautiful. Much of the early part of the movie is spent with Harry and his friends wandering the busy corridors of the Ministry of Magic, an elaborate underground hall that is etched in shiny brick and sharp points of light, occasionally supported by archways and towering statues that suggest we as commoners would only be welcomed into this world if we were undermined by our own claustrophobia and perception of dread beforehand. The setting also serves as the backdrop for what is to be the series’ most fascinating and well-staged climax thus far, a wand-to-wand duel between the supreme powers of light and dark that is beautiful in its detail, menacing in its depth, and utterly captivating in the way it fully realizes how much is at stake between all those involved in this story. Prior movies had few issues in fully imagining the creative wizard worlds that engulfed the happenings of Harry Potter, but seldom were they delivered with this much fervor or precision. The technical artists are firm in their depiction of this realm, but at the same time they never demand the spotlight.

I was not one of the legions of admirers of the early “Potter” films, as my enthusiasm for their imaginative scopes was put off by the notion that I could never find an excuse to care, or barely acknowledge, those that existed in the foreground of the canvas. Countless others did not share in those feelings, and now many of them look at the evolution of the series as not necessarily something productive, but counter-active to their initial attraction to the premise. Those of us on the opposite end of this reasoning are experiencing so much more than momentary thrills now that the stories seem to be falling into the hands of more ambitious directors, who recognize that it requires more than just special effects or elaborate set design to give identity to Rowling’s colorful narrative. The weight ultimately lies in characters, many of whom seem so much more interesting now that they have aged a little and grown into their individual mannerisms like people experiencing narrative puberty. There is not necessarily a lot of flash or spectacle going on in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” to call it an exhilarating fantasy adventure, but what it lacks in terms of full-on action it makes up for in attitude and perspective. It took a bit of trial and error to get to a fully-realized platform, but at long last, the Harry Potter stories are truly starting to sparkle on the big screen.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Fantasy (UK/US); 2007; Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images; Running Time: 138 Minutes

Daniel Radcliffe: Harry Potter
Rupert Grint: Ron Weasley
Emma Watson: Hermione Granger
Michael Gambon: Albus Dumbledore
Imelda Staunton: Dolores Umbridge
Ralph Fiennes: Lord Voldemort
Gary Oldman: Sirius Black
Katy Leung: Cho Chang
Bonnie Wright: Ginny Weasley
Evanna Lynch: Luna Lovegood
Alan Rickman: Severus Snape
Robbie Coltrane: Rubeus Hagrid
Helena Bonham Carter: Bellatrix Lestrange
Maggie Smith: Minerva McGonagall
Emma Thompson: Sybil Trelawney

Produced by David Barron, David Heyman, Tim Lewis, Lorne Orleans and Lionel Wigram; Directed by David Yates; Written by Michael Goldenberg; based on the novel by J.K. Rowling

No comments: