July 16, 2007

Phoenix Rises Only So Far

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This review appears in the 2007 edition of The Sun’s annual Freshman Issue.

Like its source material, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, diverges from its predecessors in many ways, both large and samll. It’s a darker, more serious and even a more complicated film than the ones that came before, yet it also manages to be less unwieldy than its source.
In order to change an 870 page book into a movie some of depth in the former is necessarily sacrificed. The task of making these delicate excisions falls to Andrew S. Walsh who is only the second writer to pen a Harry Potter script after Steve Kloves, and he acquits himself well. The story is faster and more coherent than the book while sacrificing little of the most important details in the book. In fact, I noticed more subtle details of plot and character watching this movie than I did while reading the book.
A quick warning: I’m working from the assumption that most of the people who have seen or will see the movie have either already read the book or have not read it but don’t want me to ruin it. In any event, this means that any plot description will be brief. To wit: No one believes Harry when he says Voldemort has returned. This bums him out. He’s angry and hurt, but he stil manages, like any good high school student, to start padding his resume for college: He begins a new club to help other students work on their spells and also finds a new hobby called Occlumency (if you don’t know at this point, well I’m not going to tell you). Then Dumbledore gets kicked out of Hogwarts and there’s a wizard battle. That’s about it. There may be a few details I’m leaving out but that about does it.
The movie moves quickly through its twists and turns but it often feels as if it is in a holding pattern dramatically. Aside from one major death there is very little that goes on that grabs the audience. There is, however, a lot of whispered conversation and hand-wringing (and, thankfully, no Quidditch).
This is not so much the fault of the movie as its source material, and there’s no way around that other than being unfaithful to the book (which the director and writer do at the risk of their own life and limb, considering the rabid nature of a few fans I can think of).
The script is ingeniously realized by David Yates, who manages to bring a new visual flair to the film, tweaking angles and working in a visual shorthand that can momentarily confuse as it works a step ahead of the audience.
This is unknown territory in Harry Potter films, and while Mr. Yates does­­­ not capture the sense of wonder that Alfonso Cuarón did, he manages to infuse his film with a different, but equally welcome, sense of cinematic style. He also brings out fine performances in his actors, particularly the three leads (though at this point they are so entwined­­­ with these characters that they would have to make a concerted effort to not be accepted as Harry, Ron and Hermione). [img_assist|nid=23585|title=Ron, Hermoine and Harry|desc=Courtesy of veritaserum.com|link=node|align=left|width=100|height=67]
Of course, it helps that these actors are buttressed by the presence of some of the best British actors around. But these stalwarts appear very little, and if there is one cut that I regreted it was the short shrift given to the Hogwarts faculty. One assumes that the demands of running time did not allow greater roles for Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and Gary Oldman (especially considering his absence from the next movie, if not the one after that). This is the first movie which rests clearly on Daniel Radcliffe’s shoulders. While he handles the burden with a cool aplomb, it sometimes seems that his greatest acting challenge in the film is to toss and turn in bed while tensing his neck muscles.
The only competition for center stage is Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton). In pink and purple pastels, Umbridge provides comic relief but undercuts a picture that is meant to build tension and create the sense of impending doom.
­­A few hours after I saw the film I realized that of the entire two and a quarter hours, there were only two scenes I remembered well: the Weasley twins’ explosive exit from Hogwarts, which was better in the book, and the battle at the Ministry of Magic, which managed to show wizards fighting in a manner that we haven’t seen before.
While neither of those scenes was the way I had imagined them, both were, like the rest of the film, accurate to the spirit and (mostly) the letter of the book, for better or worse.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the film did its job, despite its faults. I’m still going to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when it comes out. In fact, I can’t wait.