From my QUANTUM CINEMA column in Mr. & Ms. Magazine, Supermonthly of the Body, Mind and Spirit, Sept. 2007:
After a very disappointing Goblet of Fire, English Director David Yates brought Magic back in Harry Potter: The Order of the Phoenix, the 5th installment of the Harry Potter series based on the phenomenal novels of J.K. Rowling, Not only is the film intelligible even to non-Potter fans, it is also faithful to the book (thanks to the screenplay of Michael Goldenberg), has great cinematography, fantastic set design, superb “magical” fighting choreography, good serious acting, nice “horror movie” scoring, and great over-all directing.
The familiar faces of the Dursleys and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley are back. Mike Newell, who directed the Goblet of fire, excised the Dursleys and the Weasley couple from the film version. Unfortunately, some things from the book have to be left out in a 2 hour or so film. For the first time, this Harry Potter episode lacks the wizards’ premier sport called quidditch.
HARRY’S FIRST KISS
J.K. Rowling’s novel spent quite some time building up to Harry’ first kiss yet stopped short of describing the kissing act itself until after the fact when Harry described it to his friends Hermione and Ron. Yates, on the other hand, dropped all the build-up and went straight for the kiss under the mistletoe. Indeed, Harry has come of age.
But after the kissing scene, Harry and Cho Chang seemed to have soon parted ways without any explanation. Cho apologized to Harry for something, insinuating that Cho squealed on Harry’s secret group. But in the novel, the squealer was Marietta, Cho’s friend. So she could be apologizing for the act of her friend. At any rate, his infatuation with Cho – which started in the Goblet novel but almost ignored in the Goblet film – just vanished abruptly.
ORDER OF THE PHOENIX
The Order of the Phoenix is a secret society founded by Dumbledore to fight the evil Lord Voldemort. The original members included Harry’s, Ron’s and Neville’s parents as well as most of the Hogwarts’ faculty. The Order has been reactivated by Dumbledore because of the return of Lord Voldemort.
The book’s and the film’s plot is the Magic Ministry’s attempt to take over Hogwarts. But the main subplot – the fight of the Order of the Phoenix, together with Harry and his friends against Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters – is even more important because the over-all plot of the series is Harry Potter’s fight against Voldemort.
Basically, the problem of the filmmakers of the series, especially from Harry Potter 3 onwards, is which plot to emphasize, and consequently, which of the many interesting subplots.
Like the Goblet of Fire, the Order of the Phoenix novel could have been made in to two films. The first part would be focused on the Hogwarts vs. Ministry fight while the second would be based on the subplot. This would make for a more faithful rendering of the book and would include the many subplots and characters as well as include the game of quidditch which now included Ron and Harry’s present and future love interests Cho Chang and Ginny. This would also give more flesh to the two-dimensional characterization of Ron, Hermione and others as well as to the members of the Order and Voldemort and his Death Eaters.
ACTING and ACTORS
Daniel Radcliffe’s acting is very intense. Unfortunately, his two young co-stars did not have enough opportunity to showcase any acting talent.
A new young talent, Evanna Lynch, played Luna Lovegood while a new star joined the cast. Helena Bonham Carter appeared as Bellatrix Lestrange, Voldemort’s follower who put a curse of Neville’s parents that made them lose their minds. Carter tried to give as much spunk to her character in her two minute or so screen time. In the next episode, Lestrange has a meatier role.
The newcomer to the series that almost stole the show is Imelda Staunton who played Dolores Umbridge, the Ministry Undersecretary who took over Hogwarts.
Alan Rickman, one of the good actors wasted in the Potter series, managed to squeeze in some good acting in so short a screen time.
Gary Oldman as Sirius Black bowed out in this episode. His death scene was very well done, even better than in the novel.
But again, the worst was Michael Gambon. As I mentioned in my previous articles on Harry Potter, Gambon simply does not have the stature or the star presence of a Richard Harris to play a Magnificent Wizard like Dumbledore. Peter O’Toole would be an ideal Dumbledore.
In this episode, Dumbledore has a very small role. But he has dramatic entrances and exits and is expected to display spectacular brilliance in specific scenes like his defense of Harry in the Magic Ministry Tribunal, in the fight scenes against Ministry officials in Hogwarts and in the duel with Lord Voldemort. Gambon was simply not up to the task.
Perhaps it is his wardrobe. He wears what looks like a dirty nightdress and a bed robe. He only has one set of clothes. And worse, his beard is pony-tailed.
The role of Dumbledore is crucial in the next episode, The Half-Blood Prince. He is the real star of the novel and it could be his farewell appearance. If the producers don’t want to change Gambon, they should dress him up in magnificent attire worthy of a great Magus. Film critic Roger Ebert described Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore as “looking as shabby as a homeless headmaster.”
With regards to actors, I am curious about Julie Walters’ billing. She plays Ron Weasley’s mom. She is billed ridiculously low, not even together with the other supporting stars like Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson or Robbie Coltrane.
She’s a multi-awarded actress – winning Best Actress at British Film Awards (BAFTA) in 1983 and 2001, the Golden Globe in 1983 and the Laurence Olivier Award in 2001. She was twice nominated at the Oscars (1983 and 2001) and once at the Screen Actors Guild (2001).
She was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1999. Last year, she was voted by the British Public as the 4th in ITV’s (British Independent Television) 50 Greatest Stars, way ahead of Robbie Coltrane, American Idol’s Simon Cowell and this year’s Oscar Best Actress winner Helen Mirren.
To top it all, last year, Walters starred in Driving Lessons with Rupert Grint (who plays her son Ron in Harry Potter) and Laura Linney. And Walters got top billing. British actors, especially theatrical actors, are usually not concern with billing. Consequently, they usually get so-so billing in Hollywood films. But Walters’ case in Harry Potter is quite extreme.
I did a bit of research and it appeared that Hollywood was angry at her when she refused so many offers after Educating Rita. But instead of doing films in Hollywood, she went back to England to act on TV, theater and films. I suppose Hollywood has not forgiven her yet.
The Order’s set design is awesome; the atrium of the Ministry of Magic is magnificent. It is much grander that what I imagined it to be. The Hall of Prophecies was also well done with all those crystal balls just waiting to fall on you.
The trial was done in a much larger setting than in Goblet. It appropriately projected the majesty of the Court and the seeming smallness of Harry, who is accused of breaking Ministry rules.
And the deadly archway was well conceived. Instead of a veil separating what is on the other side, the designers put in computer graphics that could be construed as protoplasmic energies.
DIRECTOR AS AUTEUR
Throughout film industry’s history, there has always been debate on who is the author or auteur of a film. In the 1930s, cinema was script-led. In Germany, script writers were considered “autorenfilm” or the film’s authors. By the 1950s, as a reaction to script-led “cinema du papa”, Andre Bazin and the Cahiers du Cinema group championed the “auteur theory” which called for directors to be the real authors of the films. By the 1970s, structuralists claim that cinema is a system of structures and codes and has nothing to do with authors. Those enamored with political economy say that films are products of the industry and are just as dependent on producers and other factors as on writers or directors.
For the Harry Potter film series, the first four episodes were based on the books written by one novelist (JK Rowling) and the screenplay was done by the same writer, Steve Kloves. The producers and the main cast remained the same. But there were three different directors. Chris Columbus’s Harry Potter 1 and 2 are so different from Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter 3 and Mike Newell’s Harry Potter 4.
Harry Potter 1 and 2 are fantasy adventure movies, something like Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew in a magical setting. Harry Potter 3 is a gothic fantasy film. Harry Potter 4 is a horror-suspense thriller.
Yates continued the dark, eerie theme started by Cuaron. Yates chose to focus on the plot and main subplot and forget the rest like the annual quidditch tournament. His choices of what to include and what not to include made the big difference. While there are no spectacular special effects like fire-breathing dragons, his set designs and fight sequences appeared more magical and awe-inspiring.
But the best thing about Order of the Phoenix is that its storyline is tight and intelligible. One does not have to go back to previous Potter films or books to understand the film. This must be credited to the scriptwriter, unless he was just following the director’s ideas.
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