WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: Young wizard Harry struggles to convince the Powers That Be that the Dark Lord Voldemort is back and looking for trouble. Indeed, they are so wilfully ignorant that they send ghastly Dolores Umbridge to snoop at Hogwarts, and refuse to acknowledge the danger of a secret hidden within Ministry walls. Despite Dumbledore’s elusiveness towards his favourite pupil, Harry and friends make their own preparations for the battle to come by raising an army in his name; luckily, they are not fighting alone.
It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally caught up with the missing link in my Potter-watching. In my soon-to-be-amended review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I say/said that I’d have to re-evaluate my scores for all the films once I’d watched this one. But thinking about it, I don’t believe I will.
The world of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is not a happy one as he prepares for his fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He’s still suffering from the memory of seeing his contemporary Cedric killed at the hands of the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his summer holidays are interrupted by the appearance of dementors in Little Whinging. Harry uses magic to fend them off, a move which gets him suspended from Hogwarts by Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), whose ears are closed to any suggestion of Voldemort’s return. With the advocacy of Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), Harry wins his place back at school, but all is not well: for one thing, Dumbledore is keeping his distance; for another, prim and proper Ministry Under-Secretary Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) is the new Defence against the Dark Arts teacher and she has some strange ideas about education. For example, she doesn’t believe in pupils actually doing magic; and when Harry dares bring up the spectre of You-Know-Who, she gives him lines with a quill that sadistically writes into Harry’s own flesh. There are those prepared to believe Harry, however: ever-faithful friends Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson), and the Order of the Phoenix, a secret society who battled Voldemort in his pomp fourteen years earlier. Amongst their number are Harry’s godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), former teachers Remus Lupin and Alastor Moody (David Thewlis and Brendon Gleason), Ron’s parents and cheeky witch Tonks (Natalia Tena).
While the Order try to protect a secret about Harry hidden within the depths of the Ministry, Harry reluctantly starts ‘Dumbledore’s Army’ and trains his fellow pupils in a secret room within Hogwarts as Umbridge’s insidious influence spreads over the whole school. Harry begins to see visions of Voldemort’s efforts to retrieve the secret, a prophecy concerning them both; and when Voldemort’s followers break out of Azkaban, the stage is set for a battle royale between those on the side of good and the Dark Lord’s ‘Death Eaters’, including Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) and Sirius’ unhinged cousin Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham-Carter).
This may appear to be a pretty thorough summation, but in truth the above barely scratches at the surface of Order of the Phoenix. There’s a story thread involving Ron’s twin brothers; there’s the charmingly loopy Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) and the endearingly unsure Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis); there’s Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and his gigantic half-brother Grawp; there’s the efforts of surly Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) to make Harry resistant to mind-reading; there’s an Elf called Kreacher at Sirius’ house/HQ; there’s a mysterious archway at the Ministry’s Department of Mystery; and there’s a kiss between Harry and Cedric’s conflicted girlfriend Cho Chang (Katie Leung), though the romance is extremely short-lived. All this is present in David Yates’ film, but if you’ve not read the book don’t expect much of it to make sense. As was the case with Goblet of Fire, the filmmakers have struggled to reconcile J. K. Rowling’s increasingly dense material with the need to make a film that consistently builds tension and takes its audience with it as it goes. Therefore, it’s a stop-start affair, with some scenes ending in blackouts, or pulling away while people are still speaking, whilst other points are hastened along by shifting newspaper headlines; the overall impression you are left with is that the story is potentially deep and involving, but you need to read the book to find out what’s really going on. That can’t be a ringing endorsement of any adaptation.
The same is true of most Potter films, of course (except Chamber of Secrets, which recreates almost everything from the novel); what is specifically iffy about Order of the Phoenix is that it plays up the weakest element of Rowling’s book, namely the fact that the author (uniquely?) lets a personal and bitter bugbear invade her work. The character and attitude of Dolores Umbridge appears to be, if not directly based on an individual, then on a very narrow archetype; and her mantra about ‘secure, risk-free learning’ and exams being ‘what school is all about’ reflects an unhappy experience with the British education system, either by the author herself or someone very close to her. There’s no doubt that the unpleasant business with the quill is effective, but the political satire of Umbridge’s teaching style sits poorly amongst the marvellous fantasy for which Hogwarts is famous.
Nonetheless, the fact that Order of the Phoenix is so packed with plot means there is still a lot to enjoy. Even though her character is tainted, Staunton’s performance as Umbridge is excellent and she’s in good company, with Oldman and Bonham Carter standing out from the large cast. Of the regulars, the youngsters are all better than they were last time out and so is Gambon, though his role – like so many – is limited due to the demands of the plot. I wasn’t particularly struck by Grawp but elsewhere effects are used well, most notably in the realisation of the patronus charm and the climax at the Ministry, which is well staged and very exciting. The physical, magical and mental battle between Voldemort, Harry and Dumbledore is a fascinating core to the series and seeing the three together on-screen is a rare treat; it’s just a shame that, much like Goblet of Fire, the transitions between segments of the plot are stiff and the big finale comes upon the viewer without a great deal of warning.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a pretty good film, on the whole, but avid readers of Rowling’s work will be disappointed by how much of both Harry and the Order’s activities are merely touched upon or ignored completely; and people who just watch the films will continue to scratch their heads at many of the incidental details. Staunton’s hateful Dolores Umbridge is nasty and her politics are misplaced, but her sheer presence ensures that the film is a bit more watchable than Half-Blood Prince. Not a whole point more, however, so I’ll keep my scores exactly where they are.