Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is currently the best of 2007’s ‘Ultimate Summer’ movies (I haven’t seen Transformers or The Simpsons Movie yet, but I understand the former to be a loud mess, and the latter an extended TV episode, which could either be very good – the early, Springfield-centred seasons – or very poor – the ones where the Simpsons somehow end up in another country, or rely on random special guest stars). This is by default, but I couldn’t take away from the franchise its increasing confidence and the subtle weaving in of more adult themes. Younger viewers won’t mind this - they care enough about the characters by now to enjoy visiting them once more. For the rest of us, the sheer entertainment value on offer, coupled with the identifiable allegories underpinning the series, make it a riveting two hours.
Much has been made about the fact that the longest book in the massive Harry Potter sequence has churned out the shortest movie. Mine wife, a big Potterphile, decries the absence of certain elements from the page - the missing Weasley siblings, Harry’s choice to invest his winning from the Tri-Wizard Tournament (from The Goblet of Fire), the long passages that leave the reader in little doubt that this is a confused and angry hero in the throes of hormonal development. As far as I’m concerned, the editing is a blessing, and it’s something the books could have done with. The tomes written by JK Rowling since parts one to three smack of indulgence, and the absence of someone willing to make sweeping chops to the fat text. It’s in the most recent instalments that we have seen what a mechanical author Rowling is. The writing isn’t brilliant. Rarely does it come to life, though she remains an accomplished enough storyteller to retain enough mystery leading up to the final chapter.
In the adaptation, the cuts work. Shorn of its page padding excesses, OOTP has a real sense of vitality, and at times breathlessness. Like all good bridging yarns (it’s the first to finish without a proper climax) the film builds a degree of claustrophobia, leaving its heroes trapped in the face of rising evil and authority figures who won’t do a thing to stop it. Leading steadily to a quite amazing last act, the movie is knowing enough to contain some humour, several child-friendly elements and a villain who seems to have based her turn on the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, perhaps concealing a copy of The Prince inside her Thatcherite suits.
OOTP opens in Little Whingeing, with Harry cut off from his wizard chums. Forced once more to live with his tyrannical relations, Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths, looking frankly enormous) and Aunt Petunia, we find him sitting alone on a swing, raging against the world. Cousin Dudley shows up, looking comically chavish and nursing his reputation as a school bully. A chance and terrifying encounter with two Dementors leads Harry straight into trouble, possible expulsion from Hogwarts, and increased alienation from his allies. As the school is taken over by Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, perfectly cast), a woman with a heart of stone who starts transforming the place into Nazi Germany, Harry and his mates form Dumbledore’s Army, a clique of students who brush up on their spell casting powers in secret. They need them. Eventually, the group find themselves in the Ministry of Magic, duelling with Death Eaters (baddies who follow Voldemort) and the Dark Lord himself.
The movie tells its story at a frantic pace, rarely letting up for slower moments, and that’s a good thing. At no point was I musing over the preposterousness of it all. Only once did the CGI look in any way less than brilliant, which was the moment when Hagrid’s brother – a green-skinned giant – popped up. This simple character is one of the few concessions to children. For the most part, things in OOTP are grim, and dark. So very dark, in fact, which is a suitable point to mention the standout performance by Gary Oldman, who turns up once again as Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black. The sheer wealth of British acting talent on display – sometimes wasted in tiny cameos – makes these films ever an event, but Staunton aside, Oldman is about the best thing on display, and manages to bring his personal issues to the surface in a movie short on character expansion. On the negative side, there isn’t enough Alan Rickman. Snape is my favourite character in the books, a creepy figure with a wealth of backstory whose motivations are never clear – you have to read to the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to find out where he was coming from all along. In the film, he’s barely present, though a nice episode from his past adds neat extra layers, which will matter when they get round to making Half-Blood Prince.
David Yates – whose best known work previously was the marvellous State of Play – turns in a well directed piece. Not as visually stunning as Alfonso Cuaron’s The Prisoner of Azkaban, Yates nevertheless does well with what he has, keeping the pace just the right side of bearable, as darkness creeps into the lives of our heroes. Cleverly, Voldemort is hardly involved, and his presence is reduced to a rumbling undercurrent of menace. However, when Ralph Fiennes sans nose does show, he’s worth every vicious second of time on the screen. His Dark Lord is psychotic and brilliant, unstoppable on barely any level. Against him, Daniel Radcliffe is growing in maturity in the thankless role of a reluctant hero, Rupert Grint is a reliable comic relief, even though he’s shorn of some of his best scenes in the book, and Emily Watson still seems to be on the wooden side. I’d like to have seen more of the endlessly entertaining Weasley twins, though they do feature in a very good moment of ‘revenge,’ and Evanna Lynch shines in the part of Luna Lovegood.
More than anything, OOTP gives me hope for the future of this series. After two commercially aware but dramatically flat opening episodes, the people behind the Harry Potter franchise appear to be taking their jobs seriously, employing some fine directors who have added their own touches of quality to the material. The best remains The Prisoner of Azkaban, which was saddled with a less convoluted plot and an ending that contained real bravura, but this isn’t bad. Better than The Chronicles of Narnia, with His Golden Materials to come, and not a patch on The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter is finding a place in the movie world. I’m already looking forward to The Half-Blood Prince.