There is something as magical about the sequels in the Harry Potter series as there is about the witches and wizards who inhabit the Harry Potter universe. Bucking the tradition of sequels getting weaker with each addition, HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX continues the track record of its predecessors, building on what has come before and delivering a first-rate film focused on wonder and character development instead of special effects and catchy one-liners.
The problem with a sequel, and particularly one in the middle of a seven-novel/ seven-film arc, is that there is the resounding problem of being in media res. Much has happened before, much is still to come, and those not versed in all that may find the loose ends troublesome, however gracefully managed by screenwriter Michael Goldenberg. The strong cast also eases over a multitude of storytelling land mines. The back story of just why, for example, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is so beloved of the Weasley family as a whole, not just best pal Ron (Rupert Grint), is subsumed by the sheer heart Julie Walters infuses into the matriarch of that extensive clan. And if David Thewlis is there, though never named, or what the deal is exactly with Brendan Gleeson’s cock-eyed character, is never addressed, it someone just doesn’t matter. They are stalwart, colorful, and fill out the ranks of the titular Order in battling the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). The central struggle, why Harry and Voldemort are mortal enemies, is covered with a marvel of economy. And while Fiennes, nose digitally replaced with a viper’s snout, is still doing little more than an extended cameo, he exudes the cold-bloodedness of a ferocious evil, and that more than suffices to steeply raise the gloom and danger quotient to dizzying heights.
Goldenberg is equally graceful in paring away at the story to bring it in at 138 minutes. Inevitably, one or more of the more beloved details with which the novels are rife will be missed by those who love them. It is the nature of adaptation. Why, though, the machinations involving the annual Quidditch tournament are not addressed directly is odd. It is, more or less, symptomatic of the changes at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Goldenberg may have the restrictions of a feature film’s running time, but he has nailed the specific theme of this installment, and it’s one that resonates with the menace of right-wing turn politics and the rise of a bureaucracy that prefers its own version of reality to the actual crisis at hand.
Harry, still brooding over the death of Cedric at the end of THE GOBLET OF FIRE, is confronted in the first five minutes with what he and friends will be dealing with throughout the story. Bullies. In this case it’s his piggish cousin taunting Harry about his orphan status. Later it will be something much more menacing, and in the person of Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), the newest Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor at Hogwarts and true believer in the new, conservative policy of the Ministry of Magic that administers it. The Ministry refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned from the grave despite Harry’s eyewitness account, and the backing of Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), the headmaster of Hogwarts. Instead, the Ministry, preferring to believe that all is well, smears Harry in the press (making for some lovely wordplay in the animated headlines of The Daily Prophet), undermines Dumbledore, and sends Umbrage in to reinvent the school into a gulag of rules and regulations (including banning Quidditch) as well as to introduce coursework designed to indoctrinate, not teach.
Staunton is sugar-spun evil, bland smile, lacquered hair, neat tweed suits in sober shades of pink notwithstanding. In fact, the very plastic quality is creepy. So is her office strewn with fussy doilies and cat plates in which the cats fuss and meow, and not just because it’s where she sets Harry to writing lines as punishment with a pen that etches them, painfully, on his own skin as he writes them out on parchment. It is an artificial orderliness that smacks of the fascism she represents, adorned with a lace edging and fussy embroidery.
Radcliffe has, like the films, become darker. His owlish cuteness giving way to a distinct edginess as his character suffers the feelings of isolation not assuaged by his budding romance with Cho (Katie Leung). Enchanting as their first kiss is, beneath a bunch of mistletoe that magically appears when needed and then grows with effusive abandon, the story overtly, and director David Yates with visual cues both overt and subtle, emotionally separates Harry from Ron and Hermione (Emma Watson). In doing so, not only is true to the story, but also solves one of the other great hurdles the film has to overcome. The vast majority of the audience, even the ones who haven’t read the books, knows how the story will turn out. The tension, the interest, and the emotional tug all have to come from the character interaction and that component is solidly in place. That is not a little due to Grint, who though playing a wizard, provides the mortal, accessible, touch as the hapless but not hopeless sidekick, never quite at ease, but always game, more or less, and more importantly, always ready to be the rock Harry can count on when he’s not sure he can count on himself. Watson has Hermione’s flinty intellect, and Radcliffe has Harry’s showy inner torment to work with, but Grint gives Ron a goofy sort of tenderness that is not just sweet, it’s a refreshing counterpoint to all the dark doings. There’s also the bittersweet relationship between Harry and his godfather, the fugitive Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who are, for all practical purposes, each other’s only real family. The man suffers beautifully with depth and delicacy over the injustices of a lifetime. Unlike, say, Helena Bonham Carter as a half-mad Death Eater with wild hair and an attitude to match. Still, like her polar opposite, the dreamy-eyed and even more dreamy-voiced Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), Harry’s classmate who is not quite even of the magical world, it’s all of a piece that fits together seamlessly creating the fantasy universe.
Of course, HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX has dazzling special effects in almost every frame of film. Giants wreak havoc, centaurs maraud, and the letter from the Ministry of Magic has a deliciously snippy attitude as it comes to life to deliver its bad news. The miraculous part is that they aren’t the centerpiece, merely the display case for an intelligent film that is as captivating as it is cautionary.