July 12, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Dramatically bloated and uneven, Potter the fifth impresses as a gothic visualization

By R. Emmet Sweeney

Harry Potter the fifth, like its predecessors, is an elaborately ornamented pop-up book -- a flashy complement to its source novel but incapable of standing on its own. As drama, it is bloated and unevenly paced, never establishing any kind of narrative rhythm. It lunges from plot twist to plot twist, squeezing in drops of character development that never cohere. As a visualization of a fictional world, however, it is consistently impressive: Stuart Craig’s Victorian gothic set design, the convincing magic of its visual effects, and the superb work of the supporting actors create a buzzing background far more fascinating than the nth re-telling of the hero-as-Jesus figure yarn.

Order of the Phoenix goes further in setting up the Manichean dynamics of the Potter-verse. The noseless Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) continues to wreak havoc after his rebirth at the end of The Goblet of Fire, haunting Harry‘s dreams and stalking his various father figures (a regrettably restrained Gary Oldman among them). The magic establishment refuses to believe in Voldemort’s return, and installs a sweetly fascist British schoolmarm (the wonderful Imelda Staunton) at Hogwarts to monitor such treasonous talk. In response, Harry and pals get a revolutionary conscience and start an underground resistance movement, training for the big final act showdown with Voldemort and his goons.

The shadow narrative in the series lies in the bodies of its young stars; these films are charting their growth into (and out of) adolescence, and the films admirably don’t try to hide that fact. Daniel Radcliffe has lost all his baby fat, cut off his shaggy haircut from Goblet, and looks ready to start work as a paralegal. Magic is a ripe metaphor for these real-life transformations, but Order of the Phoenix takes little note of it, one heavily publicized lip-lock aside. The struggle into adulthood is never productively joined with the struggle against Voldemort, so all the talk of good and evil sounds hollow and abstract. All myth and no blood, it’s something that Joss Whedon’s TV version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer succeeded in doing with ease and humor (and in less than an hour!).

David Yates takes the helm this time (and again in 2008 for the Half-Blood Prince), following Mike Newell’s yeoman’s work on Goblet of Fire. Yates is a seasoned director for British TV, best known for the 2003 drama State of Play and the 2005 HBO film The Girl in the Café. He’s the first relative unknown to take over the lucrative series, and it’s just as well, since this is the most auteur-proof franchise running. Even the inimitable Alfonso Cuaron couldn’t put his stamp on the material when he took on the third entry, The Prisoner of Azkaban.

The only voice that comes through (other than Potter author J.K. Rowling’s) is that of Stuart Craig, who has designed the sets for every film in the series (and he’s signed up to finish it off as well). His biggest accomplishment in this film is the design of the ministry of magic, a gargantuan bureaucratic network that’s a mix of Victorian and the London subway, with ceramic tiles lining the walls. It’s an intimidating labyrinthine space (highlighted by a Communist-inspired propaganda portrait) that would fit just as nicely in Terry Gilliam’s 1985 nightmare fantasy of fascism, Brazil.

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