“Order of the Phoenix” is my least favorite of the Harry Potter books. It’s important to note that “least favorite” in this case means I’ve only read the book twice instead of three times like the others. I’m a full-on Harry Potter fiend, I’m comfortable admitting that.
“Phoenix” is the point in the ongoing story when things get much darker for Harry and Co. and evil, in the form of the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Dolores Umbridge, takes literal control of Hogwarts school of magic.
Up until now Professor Dumbledore has been in control of the school – mostly unchallenged – and we haven’t believed Harry to be in any real danger from a weakened “He Who Shall Not Be Named.” The fourth book and film “Goblet of Fire” set the stage for the murkier “Phoenix” with both the return of a fully restored Lord Voldemort and the tragic death of a student in Harry’s presence.
Just like the last two films “Phoenix” has a new director at the helm David Yates, whose limited directing credits include 2005’s “The Girl In the Cafe.” Yates clearly took his cues from the dramatic changes in the magical world in year five written by series author J. K. Rowling. Yates has introduced a new aesthetic to the films with gritty close-up shots and a stylistic realism – if you can call it that in this magic filled case – particularly in the kid’s relationships, that we haven’t seen before.
“Phoenix” has a much more challenging narrative than one through four and introduces a barrel-full of important new characters – most of whom are members of a secret organization led by Dumbledore called The Order of the Phoenix. The film opens on Harry in trouble again with the Ministry of Magic for using his patronus spell to defend himself and his brute of a cousin Dudley from rogue dementors. Unlike previous run-ins with the Ministry on his repeated use of underage magic Harry lands himself on wizard trial with a number of less-than-sympathetic jurors deciding his fate. Harry is quickly reunited with his godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) at the Order’s Headquarters, and we meet up with old friends including Hermione and the Weasley’s and new allies Nymphadora Tonks and Kingsley Shaklebolt. The Order is hard at work preparing to fight back in an impending war against Voldemort and his Death Eaters.
The Defense Against the Dark Arts position has always been a major plot device in the series, but evil has now come to Hogwarts in a new and very pink package. “Phoenix” deserves an Oscar nod for Art Direction throughout and for Costume Design particularly for the super-wicked Dolores Umbridge played by Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”). Dressed in head-to-toe pink and sipping tea in a pink office, Umbridge is surrounded by the purrs and cries of the dozens of commemorative cat portrait plates that cover the walls. Umbridge is the first instructor at the school to hurt Harry in the name of discipline by making Harry literally bleed in agony.
After questioning the wisdom of the Ministry’s new plan for the Defense Against the Dark Arts class, Harry is given detention and forced by the sadistic Umbridge to write “I will not tell lies” with a vicious quill that literally cuts the words Harry writes on paper into the top of his other hand – like a microscopic Freddy Kruger. Easily one of the creepiest and most unexpected visuals we’ve seen yet in the series.
As in the other films “Phoenix” is faithful to Rowling’s novel without major embellishments. Yates instead, makes effective and careful omissions using a brilliant newspaper headline device repeatedly to advance the story and rush past important story details that we need to know but, don’t have to see. That strategy along with other well chosen omissions allow Yates to tell the story much more effectively and succinctly than Rowling did, leaving out some of the glorious details that Rowling spent so much time on for the books. Like “Tom Bombadil” or “The Scouring of the Shire” in the screenplays for Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Phoenix” has been adapted for the big screen with the novel’s essence intact while avoiding a four hour running time and leaving some gems to find in the books only.
This may be the first Harry Potter movie that eludes fans of the films who haven’t yet read the books. The film and book are a purposeful inversion of the coddling conventions of the past. The trademark opening struggling with the Dursley’s isn’t played for laughs, but is instead a sweaty and visceral expulsion after Harry returns a stunned Dudley to his furious parents. Harry’s most reliable protectors – Albus Dumbledore and Rubius Hagrid – aren’t around. Dumbledore is mysteriously avoiding Harry and Hagrid is on “temporary leave” for much of the film. Hermione and Ron are still on Harry’s side, but after Cedric Diggery’s suspicious death in “Goblet of Fire” and Harry’s highly publicized claims about the return of “You Know Who” many of his friends have begun to question him or outright reject him. He has become a pariah in the magic world and Yates shows us a truly tortured Harry, complete with graphic nightmares and deep alienation, that hasn’t been on screen before.
The films climax is an epic wizard battle in the darkened labyrinth of the Ministry of Magic, which both calls to mind and puts to shame the Jedi battle from the third Star Wars prequel. Harry has trained a small group of loyal friends and allies to fight in “Dumbledore’s Army” a teen-version of The Order of the Phoenix. Haunted by visions of Sirius in trouble Harry rushes to save him and the sparks literally fly – Death Eaters vs. Dumbledore’s Army and The Order, Dumbledore vs. Lord Voldemort and of course a Harry battles the whole field of evil.
The third film “Prisoner of Azkaban” directed by Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”) remains the most successful of the films overall at bringing Harry Potter to the screen. Many, including myself, would argue “Azkaban” is the best of the books so it’s not a shock the movie turned out so well.
Yates has accomplished a different task, in bringing the most difficult and spread out story to the screen. Working within the framework created by Rowling and the other three directors before him, Yates maintains continuity with the other films, but steps out beautifully to advance the Potter films and makes his distinctive mark on the franchise. Luckily, Yates is returning for the sixth installment “The Half-Blood Prince,” giving him the first opportunity since Chris Columbus to direct two in a row.
“Phoenix” is darker and much moodier than the earlier films. The themes, which have always been remarkably heavy, are becoming more complex and illusive right along with the principle cast’s characters. As Harry, Ron and Hermione grow-up so do their issues.
“Phoenix” may have been my least favorite novel in a classic book series that I absolutely love, but “Phoenix” the film may in the long run turnout to be my favorite of the movies.