The longest and weakest of the Potter novels becomes one of the better film adaptations of the series in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," a film that should prove itself to be surprisingly divisive amongst both fanboy and regular audiences.
In 'Phoenix', both sides of the upcoming battle are building up their forces, whilst the Ministry of Magic has begun a slur campaign against Potter and Dumbledore's claim of Voldemort's return. To that effect they have sent Delores Umbridge, a kindly old woman with an iron resolve to preserve order at Hogwarts and in doing so keep an eye on them. As Umbridge's decrees grow more Draconian and a witch hunt begins for dissenters, some of the frustrated students take their own initiative and form 'Dumbledore's Army' - a group of students training to fight the Dark Lord's forces on their own. A showdown with Umbridge and the Voldemort himself for possession of a secret prophecy hidden within the Ministry's vaults follows.
'Phoenix' is by far the darkest Potter yet, and in doing so has lost some of that light weight flight of fancy that served as both comic relief and welcome background distraction. Yet it also is the first to actually make the danger feel far more linked in with our real world, and in doing so gives the film both a greater urgency and a more adult sensibility. From the opening Dementor attack to the flight across the Thames, there is at last a palpable sense of danger to not just our heroes but to the world itself and a thankful lack of either schmaltz or sentimentality.
It ties in with the general story itself which really serves as a bridge between the first four self-contained adventures, and the next two stories which are inexorably bound together. That linking of (and flashing back to) past events, combined with a somewhat rushed ending, yields a film that delivers superb setup throughout but never truly climaxes. There's some self-contained elements here which for the most part are handled very well (most notably Umbridge), but they're not entirely strong enough to stand on their own and will consequently leave some disappointed that it lacks a distinct flavour.
Admitttedly streamlining the longest book (some 800+ pages) into the shortest film yet has had its detrimental effects, and the single biggest complaint one could have is that the film could easily have been 15-20 minutes longer - especially in its last act scenes such as the meeting in Dumbledore's office. New scribe Michael Goldenberg takes over the adaptation duties and has ruthlessly trimmed much of the book's useless fat to deliver an extraordinarily fast-paced and very lean film which always has something compelling going on and never bogs itself down in distraction. Something like the school dance subplot that took up half an hour of "Goblet of Fire" doesn't survive here - even Harry's first kiss is truncated to a scant few minutes.
It's not an always perfect fit. Some storylines are smartly cut out altogether, whilst the belligerent Potter of this book actually vents his anger early in the piece and ultimately becomes a more compelling, noble and even tragic character in this film incarnation. Yet other changes bring up elements, only to ignore them later or simply work as lip service. The 'Dumbledore not looking at Harry' storyline for example is clumsy at first, yet it feeds into a compelling climax that's more internal and interesting than expected. Aside from the length, the biggest sin is that so many of the adult characters literally have one or two scenes and some important points (eg. Trelawney's connection) are left out altogether despite the character appearing.
Much of the praise, and a few criticisms, can be lobbed at the film's director David Yates. Known mostly for some of the best British television work in recent years ("State of Play" is one of the best mini-series ever), the man has done a very commendable job in jumping to the world of feature filmmaking. Some rushed editing and clumsy transitions (most visible in the newspaper headline montages which serve as exposition central), can't take away from the many strengths he brings to the series in practically every other field. Most notably he brings back that dark exotic quality that Cuaron did with what remains the best film of the series - "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" - yet is more anonymous in his style like Newell was with "Goblet of Fire".
His biggest strength is that he easily gets the best performances yet out of those involved. Radcliffe and Grint have grown into great young actors, and Radcliffe in particular really shines here - our few glimpses back at the young Potter in earlier films reminds us how far he's come whilst various scenes ranging from throwaway first kisses to battles for his very soul are delivered with a strong sense of conviction and maturity. Watson is enjoyable but surprisingly hasn't grown as much as the others, making her delivery a little flat at times but on the whole an essential piece of the puzzle.
The adults are equally up to the task. Oldman gives his Sirius that kindly father streak missing from his previous Azkaban appearance, but adds a more John Lennon-esque rebel element to himself. Michael Gambon finally gets to show off some of the sheer power of Dumbledore (his 'escape' scene is the film's most fun bit) along with an almost paternal affection for Harry. The likes of Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson, and Alan Rickman get only a few lines but maximise their potential - Rickman in particular does SO much with so little that it's a real testament to his abilities.
The big new addition though is Imelda Staunton who is truly delectable as Umbridge. Armed with cat-themes plates, pink shoals, and a smile that never falters - she portrays one of the more fascinating and sadistic creations of Potter's universe perfectly, showing that evil isn't simply in the form of a monster in a black robe but those so rooted in their righteous belief that they can't see the foolhardiness and corruption that comes from within. One scene in particular, when Harry first realises the true nature of their detention together, and then looks up at her standing over him with her iron smile is brilliant.
Evanna Lynch also does a stellar job as the somewhat eccentric Luna Lovegood, a blond wispy student whose distracted nature comes with a darker side that has parallels for Harry. Not faring so well is Helena Bonham Carter who does a good job as the evil Frakenstein's bride-haired Bellatrix Lestrange but doesn't get much to do beyond a few lines. Same goes for the likes of characters like both the Malfoys, Mad-Eye Moody, Remis Lupin, Tonks, even Cho Chang - all serve more as window dressing than any actual need to have the characters there.
The film's cinematography and production design are excellent. Stuart Craig delivers some delightful new sets including the tight dark halls of Grimmauld Place, and of course the Ministry itself. Looking like a London Underground station as if designed by the architects who built the Orwellian world of "1984," Craig and costumer Jany Temime really work the parallels with dangerous authority from the dictator-esque posters of Cornelius Fudge to the Inquisition-like costumes of the Ministry judgement panel.
Nicholas Hooper delivers the best musical score of the series outside of Williams' job on the first film. The visual effects are also par excellence and strike with real power - from the majestic grounds of Hogwarts to the sheer massive wizarding battle scene at the end, the flights of fantasy on display are superb and add to the element that this is no longer kids stuff.
Ultimately it'll be interesting to see who responds to this film. Hardcore fans who've bitched about stuff being left out will be more mad than ever as it cuts out so much, changes other things and mishandles some of its key elements whilst getting most so perfectly spot on. On the other hand those who've thought these films too kiddy or light hearted will likely respond much more to the mature and darker themes on display, even if they get more lost than ever along the way.
This is a notable change in tone for the series, one that is more about foreshadowing coming events and building up a mythology rather than serving as a more eccentric, self-contained adventure film. Delightful little side trips into character and rememberances of the fact that these are still school students are sacrificed in favour of servicing the main plot with Harry leading his insurrection. In doing so it has given everything a colder and more calculated feel that beckons more to the work of the likes of Christopher Nolan or Stanley Kubrick than the warmer more crowd-pleasing stories of the previous films.
It's a shame that a few have already begun to dismiss this, as in the final analysis it may be the only film that actually improves on the source material - the spirit of the material and all the key moments are there and handled beautifully, but much of the excess is torn away (its sole true flaw is that a tad too much is torn). As a standalone film it can't match 'Azkaban', but rather sits comfortably around 'Goblet' (not sure which side yet) and is far above the pedestrian antics of the Columbus-era. Certainly after a raft of bloated and disappointing sequels this Summer, this easily stands out as the best event pic so far of the season. Not for the littlies, but higher brow adults may find themselves clicking with it like never before.