Director: David Yates
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Imelda Staunton, Gary Oldman, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Julie Walters, Jason Isaacs, Matthew Lewis, Evenna Lynch, Maggie Smith, David Bradley, Robert Hardy with Michael Gambon and Ralph Fiennes
Plot: Terrified of the thought of Voldemort’s (Fiennes) return, the Ministry of Magic deny his existence, publicly ridicule Harry (Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Gambon), and interfere with Hogwarts.
Out of all of the Harry Potter directors, David Yates has been the most successful. While the last few films have passed the torch from director to director, once Yates takes up the mantle, the franchise is stuck with him, even to the point where Fantastic Beasts is firmly in Yates territory. Arguably the success of this film is what gained him the confidence of the producers as Order of Phoenix is easily one of the hardest books to get right of the lot. One of the largest, but also wallowing in darkness. As Voldemort returns to power, the narrative understandably matures proving to be a tough book to swallow and a difficult movie to endure.
The main decision Yates seems to make is focusing the narrative to the essentials. He isn’t going to cover anything and is likely to upset someone, so he makes the early decision to power through with reckless abandonment. This highlights the biggest problem with the fifth entry that J.K Rowling’s text smartly danced around, but one harder to avoid in film. As Voldemort rises to power and the Order of the Phoenix provide bite as the resistance, all the good bits of the movie are happening outside of Hogwarts. While the book referenced the excitement of this period in the Potter-verse, in a film, Harry is learning about what happens – Arthur Weasley getting attacked by Nagini, Azkaban’s prison break – second-hand. Order of the Phoenix never escapes the concept that there is a much better film happening outside of Hogwarts. What remains is the tyranny of the foul Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Dolores Umbridge. Umbridge plays a crucially important part in the story, as she sets the tone that Rowling intended. Umbridge’s tittering, hateable figure, often clad in pink and sweetly purring her threats in a despicable ‘mother knows best’ manner, is a Ministry official sent to Hogwarts to make sure that Dumbledore stays in line. Her point in the story is to warn the audience of the potential consequences of a government that meddles too intricately in affairs beyond them. Umbridge turns her class into written lessons, avoiding the use of hazardous spells, fires staff she deems inadequate and suffocates the students with endless rules whenever she feels her rule is threatened. Her very place in the story definitely adds a lot of the miserable weight to the film, trapping Order of the Phoenix in the place of the heaviest movie to date. Out of all of the Harry Potter villains, perhaps Umbridge is the most real, her slimy politician figure too easily recognisable in our own lives. However, does this make her one of the worst Potter antagonists for sucking the entertainment factor out of proceedings, or one of the best for having such an effect on the tone of the franchise? There are some cracking moments from the character, including a spine-shivering trait where she forces misbehaving students to write with a quill that cuts them as they use it. And, with a character that is as easy to hate as Umbridge, it makes the small moments where she gets her comeuppance all the better. Small rebellions from the students go down terrifically, as the desperate look on her face sells it all: she isn’t as powerful as she likes to think she is. It is a wonderful performance from the severely under-rated Imelda Staunton and, on a second watch, while Umbridge isn’t as fun as the likes of Lucius Malfoy, Lestrange or the mighty Voldemort, she is definitely a strong baddie in her own right.
However your feelings on Umbridge, she does tend to domineer this film. I enjoyed her oppressive scenes, because of the political debate Rowling puts behind them, but Order of the Phoenix does feel particularly hemmed in by the character. It isn’t a film bursting with variety like the superior Goblet of Fire or the mysterious Prisoner of Azkaban. While the sub-plots are strong, they feel painfully clipped. This is the film where Sirius Black gets the most to do, yet Gary Oldman still feels criminally under-used. His dialogue scenes have emotional weight, but never quite get to the quality you feel they could have been. Maggie Smith continues to be pushed out of the movie, albeit given a few beautiful lines. Harry Potter’s biggest issue continues to be the fact that the most interesting characters and best actors are always on the hemisphere of the story. In fact, out of all of the recent films, Order of the Phoenix tends to put the most stock in the child actors, perhaps Yates deciding that, rather than dancing around their importance, it is time to build them up into people we want to spend time with. Matthew Lewis’ Neville Longbottom is growing into quite the hero and Order of the Phoenix introduces one of the best Harry Potter characters in my books, Luna Lovegood, perfectly cast with Evanna Lynch. It is a credit to Rowling and Yates that the series can be this late into the story and continue to bring new and exciting characters to the table, rather than falling back on the favourites.
Order of the Phoenix does break into an exciting finale when the final third creeps in. Perhaps the focus on Umbridge was Yates’ way of freeing more time for the battle in the Ministry. It is a prolonged adventure, the lengthy running time feeling very brisk in this entry. It proves a good chance to see some of the better characters handle a slice of the action. Jason Isaacs finally embraces the bad guy he has been merely toying with becoming for the last few films. Lupin, Sirius and Moody get to duel. And the film gives way to the battle we have been dying to see for so long now, Dumbledore vs Voldemort. The problem the finale has is that wizarding duels are often anti-climatic. What we want is something akin to the excitement of a lightsabre duel from Star Wars, where the soundscape builds up an extreme amount of tension. Spell-casting however quickly turns into a senseless array of special effects and cries of anguish. The battles aren’t quite as intense as you want them to be, although Order of Phoenix tries its damned hardest to get the emotions right with one of the saddest deaths of the series.
Final Verdict: Order of the Phoenix is darker and tougher to get through than the others, but the pay-off is buried within, making it an overall success.