Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
July 2007

A tall 'Order'

Moody, foreboding 'Phoenix' continues to expand and improve on the Harry Potter series

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: David Yates
Screenplay: Michael Goldenberg, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Imelda Staunton, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Robbie Coltrane, Gary Oldman, Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 18 minutes
Opens July 11, 2007
(out of four)

No one knew who David Yates was. He'd been a veteran of the industry for a while, but was known mostly for his work in television. And he was taking over the lucrative Harry Potter franchise with a filmography whose most notable film was the HBO-produced drama, The Girl in the Café.

It was a choice that, his British-ness aside, had more than a few scratching their heads. But in The Order of the Phoenix, Yates proves equal to the task - even equal to his more prolific predecessor, Mike Newell, who directed Goblet of Fire two years ago. Both that film and this one seem to be covering too much ground to fit in two-and-a-half hours (surely hardcore fans of the books can attest to that), but Order of the Phoenix does so more gracefully than did the fourth installment. Utilizing the old-fashioned "newspaper headline" convention to get through some of the logistical details of the plot, the film is able to filter in those essentials while concentrating on the meatiest aspects of the story.

The film finds Harry and his cohorts at odds with the forces of bureaucracy - namely the Ministry of Magic - and propaganda, in the form of The Daily Prophet, the newspaper that begins to smear Harry's reputation at the behest of Minister Fudge (Robert Hardy). The Ministry refuses to accept Voldemort's imminent return and admonishes Harry for doing so. Both he and Dumbledore have found themselves on the Ministry's bad side, and Harry has been ostracized from most of his peers at Hogwarts.

With Dumbledore already under fire, the Ministry sends in the cheerfully sadistic Dolores Umbridge as the school's newest Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. Umbridge not only draws the students' ire by refusing to teach them any actual spells - dealing instead only in "theoretical" magic - but it's not long before she has replaced Dumbledore as headmaster, fired such teachers as Sybill Trelawney (Emma Thompson), re-organized the school with a new, more rigid set of rules and guidelines and even dabbled in a bit of light torture. For the sake of discipline and order, of course.

As Umbridge, British actress Imelda Staunton is another in a long line of inspired choices in this series, brilliantly creating a deliciously evil comic villain whose anal-retentiveness is matched only by her ignorance.

The way she transforms Hogwarts into a place of straight-laced joylessness is depressing and frustrating for both the students and us, but also sets the stage for some increasingly clever (and useful) acts of teenage rebellion. Needless to say, the twins, Fred and George Weasley (James and Oliver Phelps), have more than a little something to do with this. Most importantly, Harry and Co. convince several of his classmates that he's telling the truth about his run-in with Voldemort, and they begin training for battle in a "Room of Requirement" - which appears only when someone desperately needs it - right under Umbridge's smug little nose.

As expected, this series continues to grow darker. The bright-eyed kids have started to grow up, and the sinister forces encroaching on them is starting to weigh heavily on Hogwarts. Order of the Phoenix focuses less on magic and more on character than the last film, or the first two, for that matter. More than anything, this film is about Harry's own isolation - from everyone and everything. Already without parents or much family, he becomes alienated from his schoolmates, his instructors and even his friends.

He lashes out in frustration for no particular reason; he constantly feels angry. He's haunted by visions of ominous foreshadowing. It seems that the whole world is against him. And while every teenager probably feels that way, Harry actually might have a point. After all, he was the one who actually had to see Cedric killed, and who actually saw Voldemort face-to-face.

The rift continues between Harry and Dumbledore, who, while remaining Harry's greatest advocate, hardly looks his way anymore.

Over the course of the whole series, Harry has always been a lonely, isolated character, and this film is right to go in that direction and explore his alienation even further.

Naturally, his visions and emotions have to lead to something, and they do, as the film builds up to an extended and supremely executed dramatic climax that serves also as a compelling lead-in to the sixth installment. With a film series that relies so much on visuals and action, the big setpiece that closes the film seems like the biggest question mark for a director such as Yates, who had never before tackled a project of this magnitude, and with this kind of budget. But he does a fantastic job with the visual exposition of the scene, and able to crisply and urgently tackle several plot points and character arcs at once.

Yates is the first non-big name director to take a crack at Harry Potter, but he may have made the second-best film of the whole series. While it would be difficult to match the lyrical beauty and depth of Alfonso Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban (which, while apparently deviating considerably from the material, remains one of the best fantasy films to come along in years), Yates has followed admirably in his predecessors' footsteps, continuing - with the help of new screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, who may have written the best script of the series - to take the franchise in interesting directions. The playfulness of the early films may now be gone, but at the very least, Cuaron, Newell and Yates have made Chris Columbus a distant memory. And with Yates already signed on for Half-Blood Prince, we can expect more of the same progress.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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