Wednesday, July 11, 2007
A "Potter" with real emotional depth
Summary: "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" may not move as swiftly as some would like, but this "Potter" tops its predecessors when it comes to emotional resonance.
Many critics seem to think that the latest edition of "Potter" has lost some of its charm and magic. I wonder if that's because Harry and his pals finally are growing up. Smack in the middle of adolescence, Harry, Hermione and Ron are starting to learn some difficult lessons: trouble tends to repeat itself, happy endings are scarcer than Muggles at a Hogwarts reunion and the giddiest pleasures (even those produced by magic) sometimes wear thin.
As directed by David Yates, who's new to the series, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" spends most of its 138 minutes setting up what looms as Potter's final showdown with the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). It takes almost 20 minutes for the movie to reach the hallowed halls of Hogwarts, and this time, Harry finds himself experiencing increasing amounts of anger and isolation. Harry's always been a bit alienated; in "Phoenix," he's practically overcome with angst.
The major addition to the series involves one Delores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), a teacher from hell. Umbridge -- a name Dickens would have envied -- is so staunch and officious she even manages to push the stately Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) aside. Staunton seems to be having a great time playing a woman who tries to reduce magic to a set of rules and procedures. She values administrative ability more than a good frolic. For Umbridge, it's order uber alles.
Although the movie brims with visual treats, Yates pretty plays things straight. He's turned out a "Potter" without the winking, playful spirit that sometimes defined the earlier movies. Some may find the often-somber tone objectionable, but in watching "Order of the Phoenix," I felt -- maybe for the first time -- that the Potter movies might deepen enough to become a true big-screen classic. In short, the dark side has gotten darker. We really feel the awful presence of evil as Harry begins to discover where it resides and how it manifests in the world. "Phoenix" may be a children's story, but it has real moral weight.
Don't take this "classic" business too seriously. I'm far from being a "Pottermaniac." I've read only the first book -- and that just to get a feel for author J.K. Rowling's style. I'm not eagerly awaiting publication of the final novel in the series, due in less than two weeks. My nightstand already is crowded with books that await attention. I'm sure someone will publish the spoilers. I'll learn who lives and who dies. That will just about do it for me.
No, I regard the Potter movies as something on the order of old Classic Comics that served a generation that was too lazy actually to read the classics; the Potter movies have allowed me to become familiar with a cultural phenomenon without having to be consumed by it.
"Phoenix" does have some problems, mostly because the story tends to stall now and again. Harry's much-anticipated first kiss -- with Cho Chang (Katie Leung) -- doesn't amount to much, and the movie's ending has a compressed quality in which finer points of plot tend to get lost. Still, I admired the way Yates refuses to celebrate these characters in indulgent ways. Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) play lesser roles. Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) shows up, but mostly in service of a plot point.
Do any of the movie's shortcomings matter? Probably not to avid fans. The latest Potter qualifies as must viewing for those who have followed the series. That's an awful lot of folks, and many of them will be delighted to learn that "Phoenix" stands as one of the more interesting looking of the Potter movies. Credit cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, who has done landmark work ("The Double Life of Veronique" and "Blue") with the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Aesthetic appreciation aside, here's the best endorsement I can give the movie: Despite its problems, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is the first of the Potter movies that left me really looking forward to the next installment. The stakes have gotten considerably higher, and we've good reason to be fearful.