Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Film review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The fifth Harry Potter book has a bad reputation amongst fans. You'd be hard pushed to find anyone who truly enjoyed the first third of the book (which is slow and uninvolving), and even when it breaks free of its badly executed beginning, the ending it presents is not as much of a revelation as the author seems to wish we'd find it, either.

The good thing about movies though, is that the old maxim "bad books make great movies" is very often true, and so it is here. While the original book isn't necessarily "bad", it's probably the least loved, and once it's stripped of the unnecessary bits, what's left is quite an interesting political thriller, of sorts. Ignore the critics who have moaned about "Harry Potter losing its magic"; its supposed lack of "magical" qualities is directly down to the original book, and a deliberate decision by Rowling. The story is a slow, but tense exploration of the self-blinkered behaviour of people who refuse to accept an ugly truth, and would rather turn the harmless into a threat, than have to face up to what they fear most.

I wish I could say that directorial newcomer, David Yates, is instrumental to the film's successes, but sadly the film appears to show a director unsure of himself. This isn't to say that the film is poor; far from it, Yates is just extremely lucky that everyone else working on Harry Potter knows exactly what they're doing. It's the little in-between moments, where the director should be making sure that everything feels coherent, that his failings are visible. From the badly explained and confusing plot points (why not just use the mind scanning spell, seen later in the film, to prove that Harry had seen Voldemort?), to the poor performances from those who are clearly in desperate need of some direction, to the film's awful opening sequences and final battle (both only being saved by the special effects).

Thankfully, as I've already said, the producers of the film clearly were happy to take a chance on a cheap, inexperienced TV director, because they were well-aware that everyone else involved knew precisely how to do their jobs: The main cast is excellent, it looks fantastic, the editing, while slow, brings wonderful tension, the special effects are great (I've never seen Hogwarts look so perfect) and the script is as lean as it needed to be.

It's a little sad, though, after hearing so much about how Evannah Lynch characterised her character, Luna Lovegood, that all the lines that explain her character are completely missing. In fact, I'll bet her presence in the movie is a complete mystery to those who haven't read the book. I'm not sure why her character defining moments were removed, but I'm guessing it was either time constraints or a poor performance (or maybe just bad editing choices). Again, it's hard not to fault the director.

Thankfully for every poor moment, there's a slew of great ones to make up for it, and one of the film's happy highlights is unquestionably Imelda Staunton, who brings a wonderful dimension to her character that I don't remember even being in the original novel. She portrays Dolores Unbridge as someone who really believes she's doing the right thing. In the book I remember her being, well, just evil, (I could be wrong in my memories) but through Staunton's performance, the same dialogue reveals a character much more dangerous; someone who is doing wrong in the name of something right. She, along with the pace and plotting of the film, are easily its most enjoyable and successful aspects. In fact, it's partially Staunton's performance that makes the political elements so successful.

Of course, political tension and the necessity to concentrate throughout the film, don't always make for happy children, and, like the books, this is the first film to truly indicate the darker and more mature areas the story is about to explore.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a different type of Harry Potter film. It's not as "magical" or filled with adventure as the previous instalments, but it was never meant to be (and if it had been, it would have failed the greater story). Because of this, if you're not familiar with the books, be prepared for a different take on the world of Harry Potter. If you are a fan of Rowling's work, you'll probably be very satisfied with this latest effort.

Don't let the critics put you off, this is a very enjoyable Potter film, which given the source (perhaps the least enjoyable Potter book), is a very nice surprise. Recommended.

- "Good"

Explanation of my unusual rating system: 'No stars' = Average/missable, '1 star' = Has some merit, '2 stars' = Good, '3 stars' = Excellent, and finally '4 stars' = A milestone of the medium (very rare).


Gabez said...

I have to say, I loved the book and the film. The book has a lot of really great moments in it... though really I like all the books in different ways.

Johnny Walker said...

I agree, I hope I didn't sound like I was coming down too hard on the book. The beginning is, though, very dull, and does drag on. In contrast, the film contains pretty much the same amount of exposition in Grimmauld Place, but does it in a lot smaller chunk of the whole story.

Plus, I have to say, the ending didn't really reveal anywhere near as much as the author seemed to think it would. Again, it's interesting to note how the film skated over the "revelatory" scenes to very little detriment of the story.

I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Rowling had set out to reveal other things in the book, but ended up changing her original plan quite a bit during the writing.