Thursday, July 12, 2007

Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Crime, failure, corruption, deceit. Everything's normal in Washington.

So much for the news. Now on to Harry Potter.

I went with my 13-year old daughter to a midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Tuesday night, and whether or not you're a Potterphile, this is a movie to see. It's sleek, beautiful, fast-moving, funny, dramatic, and endearing; and the acting, as always in these Potterflicks, is of the highest caliber in the world. I was stunned at the new arrivals on the Hogwarts set: they could have turned the planet sideways and shaken out every odd girl on it, and not found a more perfect Luna Lovegood than Evanna Lynch. Amazing. Imelda Staunton does Umbridge with an ideally superficial evilness—she evokes Ardendt's famous phrase, "the banality of evil." Helena Bonham Carter is a wonderfully psychotic hottie.

You'll have a lot of fun watching this film, unless you're such a Pottermaniac as to insist on having all your favorite literature transplanted to the reel. The fifth book on which this film is based is the longest in the series, and the movie is the shortest (by a few minutes). So naturally, much of the sub-story has been eliminated and some of the main story compressed. Examples:

  • No hospital scenes: St. Mungo's didn't make it into the set design. Neville tells Harry about his parents' past in the Room of Requirement.

  • The attack on McGonnigal is eliminated. Surprising, this one, because it's such a cinematic scene: the kids are on the astronomy tower, taking a live exam in that class at midnight, when the Umbridgean assault on Minerva M. (outside Hagrid's hut) occurs, and the lovable half-giant gets into the fray as well. But it's not in the film.

  • A crucial conversation with Nearly Headless Nick at the end of the story is removed. I guess too much talk of death in a movie can be seen as depressing, but I thought the scene with NHN is essential to an understanding of the Potter metaphor as a whole.

  • Quidditch and "Weasley is our king": gone. No time for sport in this movie, which is too bad, because the development of Ron's character depends on his experience as keeper of the Gryffindor Quidditch squad. Another crucial Ron-experience that's missing is the encounter with the pickled brains at the Ministry during the climactic flight/battle sequence.

  • No train. The Hogwarts Express is absent. We meet Loony Luna as she is sitting on a carriage at Hogsmeade, reading her upside-down Quibbler.

  • So if you haven't gotten used to the fact that film and literature are two separate art forms with different approaches to delivering the message, then you may find yourself fuming in your seat at this film. Yet I found that, as with Cuaron's treatment of the Azkaban story (number 3), this movie is enlivened by the liberties it takes with Rowling's tome. There is speed, action, intensity, and spectrum to this presentation of the fifth stage of the Potteriad, and it works, by and large, because it lets the images and their connection speak. At the same time, Rowling's insight on the easy decadence of the state is emphasized in the film; there are a couple of moments where the audience gasped at the targets being so squarely hit in this era of Bushian corruption.

    That said, the movie rather misses the mark on its overall theme, which it presents as the struggle between the light and the dark within the human self, and the necessity to choose the light. It is Dumbledore's message to Harry during the possession scene in the climactic battle, and Sirius reinforces this lesson, quite literally, to Harry at Grimmauld Place.

    The lesson I took from the book, and which I presented in my own book about the Potter universe, is that it is excess rather than darkness that threatens the living self. There can even be an excess of light, as in the images of the state that Rowling gives us. Read the chapter about Harry's first encounter with the Ministry offices, for example: there are light-words sprayed all over the page in the depiction of the great lobby at the Ministry's entrance: "golden," "glamorous," "glittering," and the like.

    This, of course, is also the lesson of the Pensieve (which also fails to make its appearance in this film—the flashback to Snape's schoolboy torments is made in the context of the Occlumency lesson). Dumbledore uses the Pensieve as a means of discarding excessive thought; and Harry always finds himself inwardly clarified after every encounter with the magic bowl of reflection.

    So the film tends to oversimplify this lesson, making the entire affair into a monumental struggle of light and dark, while Rowling's theme is much more nuanced and layered: excess is the distortion that must be cleansed, so that the natural glow of humility and truth can be revealed.

    The movie is also, compressed as it is, Harry-centric. This is odd, because among the kid performers, Rupert Grint (Ron) and Emma Watson (Hermione) actually show greater maturity and depth to their artistic progress than does Dan Radcliffe (Harry). In Rowling's story, of course, the case is quite different: the maturation of characters like Ron, Neville, Ginny, and Hermione is actually given more emphasis than Harry's development. There are clear artistic reasons for this: Ginny, for example, is to play a big role in Book 6 (and presumably 7 as well)—in part as Harry's next lover.

    But a film can't capture all of this (I sometimes wonder whether a long-running TV series in the BBC Upstairs/Downstairs tradition might have been a better dramatic medium for the Potter tales). Yet on the whole, there is far more takeaway than sacrifice in this film: the portrayal of the State in the setting of the Ministry offices (which are positively Orwellian) and the character of Umbridge; the unforgettable casting of Luna; the spectacular CGI set-pieces, highlighted by the Weasley twins' fireworks show during final exams; and the developmental arena of the Room of Requirement all contain images and impressions that will make you long and fondly remember this movie.

    Tomorrow: predictions for Book 7

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