The bleak film of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix smothers the final embers of the series’s childish wonder, ushering in a climate of repressed sexuality, paranoia, Fascism, madness, death, and acne. (That last is not by design but comes with the territory.) This is not a family movie. It’s not even a borderline gothic horror movie, in the manner of the third and fourth (scary) Potter installments.
Directed by David Yates, Order of the Phoenix is Orwellian.
The atmosphere is grainy and dank, the faces dour, the hero’s alienation starting to fester. Hauled before a hostile tribunal to explain his use of magic in the presence of Muggles, the hormonal, beleaguered Harry recounts the attack of the swirling Dementors: As they drew the breath from his body, he says, “it was as though all the happiness had gone from the world.” That’s how the whole movie feels—Dementored.
Adding to the unease is the altered appearance of its out-of-joint trio, now on the far side of puberty, each growing at a different rate. Hermione (Emma Watson) is turning into a broad-shouldered Amazon solder. Ron (Rupert Grint) is even hulkier and might even consider raising his dose of benzoyl peroxide. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) hasn’t quite kept pace.
His visage is pinched: You get a glimpse of the fortyish accountant beneath the teenage wizard. The prepubescent cuties they once were are seen fleetingly, in flashback. Ah, for the halcyon days of vomit-flavored candy and Quidditch. Did I forget to mention that, for all its portentousness, this is the best Harry Potter movie to date? In some ways, it improves on J.K. Rowling’s novel, which is punishingly protracted and builds to a climactic wand-off better seen than read. (I can’t wait to see the Imax 3-D version.) Yates directed the brilliant 2003 British mini-series State of Play, a literate newspaper drama with a touch of sublimated violence. (It was too little noticed on these shores when it popped up—with a lot of irritating commercials—on BBC America.)
Yates and his crack editor, MarkDay, let loose with terrific montages: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is haunted by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), his features still primitively puttyish, in a business suit on some kind of subway platform. He stares at Harry inscrutably. Is there the faintest trace of sadness? Voldemort is now Harry’s most intimate companion. The Ministry of Magic has mounted a campaign—through its Pravda-like newspaper, the Daily Prophet—to discredit the notion of the dark lord’s return. Fellow pupils regard Harry warily. A little Irish tuffy called Seamus says his mother believes that Harry’s a loy-er. Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) has become frosty and elusive.
Above all, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is dominated—nearly subsumed—by Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge, the latest and most bloodcurdling Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. Plump and pink, a tea-cozy Fascist, Staunton’s Umbridge is the description of every sick, reactionary instructor you’ve ever experienced.
Palpably loathing her students’ youth and freedom, she metes out punishment with mocking gentility, with a frozen smile more enraging than any angry rebuke. What inspired the creation of this freak? Rowling came of age when the English director Pete Walker was delivering horrific seventies melodramas such as House of Whipcord and Frightmare, movies that fed on the tension between Britain’s swinging counterculture and its repressed and repressive guardians of middle-class propriety—whom Walker described as semi-delusional torturers and cannibals.
I ask myself if Rowling witnessed them—and was chilled to the marrow as I was by Walker’s main lady, Sheila Keith. Or perhaps this figure is universal: In no other book do you feel as viscerally the pagan fury out of which the Harry Potter series must have been born. More than being a sadist, Umbridge shows an executive branch of government unchecked—liable to hold an inquisition at the first whiff of insolence, using the citizenry’s terror as a pretext to abolish civil liberties.
Where Rowling goes soft is in offsetting Umbridge and her ministry with Dumbledore, a good liberal patriarch—albeit an increasingly fragile one. (The unfortunate death of Richard Harris, who originated the role, only strengthens our sense of Dumbledore’s vulnerability.)
The trim adaptation by Michael Goldenberg irons out a few of Rowling’s dissonances—among them the escalating morbidity of Harry’s protector, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), whose fate in the novel makes more emotional sense. He doesn’t fix the issues of Cho Chang (Katie Leung), still a cipher (and sexless) even in the course of the smooch heard throughout the world. (For all the hubbub, you’d think she goes down on Harry.)
Ron’s sister, Ginny, who’s looking more in the novels like Harry’s true love—meaning she’ll either die laying in his arms or gives him little wizards—is virtually anonymous here. But Helena Bonham Carter scores a surreal (and ear-splitting) note as some sort of a shrieking she-demon. And there is an enchanted turn by a young actress new to movies, Evanna Lynch, as the queerly private Luna Lovegood: This flake flutes her lines, but not always on key. (You like her but wouldn’t want to be stuck with her in a train compartment.)
The supporting cast is the typical embarrassment of British riches: Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Julie Walters, Jason Isaacs. (Where is Bill Nighy? Vanessa Redgrave?) After collecting their Hollywood paychecks, these actors now have no excuse not to do more plays for scale.