The opening scene is apt enough so let’s begin with it: A clean-cut Harry sits alone on a swing set placed uninvitingly over the dried and bristly summer environs of Privet Drive. His adolescent self seems uncannily wedged between the childhood behind him and an imminent adulthood, warily awaited. Opposite him stands a cartoonish Dudley Dursley with a couple of goons. All look equally as uncomfortable with the fit of their formative years, wearing the pseudo-punk rock sleaze akin to a set of washed up Misfits fans. Just prior, a remembrance of things past – parents, friends, Hogwarts – flashed in Harry’s mind. His angst crests with Dudley’s taunts, and overhead swirls an unbidden cloud, dark as dark and getting ever darker.
DIRECTED BY: David Yates
STARRING: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
PLAYING AT: Area theaters
The latest Harry Potter adaptation, “Order of the Phoenix,” like the book, sees Harry growing increasingly distant from the familiar climes of Hogwarts’ past. Rumors that he killed his late friend and schoolmate Cedric Diggory cover the newspapers, and everyone approaches Harry as if the floor around him is strewn with eggshells. The opening scene deftly establishes this seemingly simple theme of adolescent growing pains, as well as the direction in which the series is heading. It’s dark (PG-13 dark, at least) and forecasts a darker future for the increasingly misunderstood young wizard.
“Order of the Phoenix’s” well-pitched atmosphere is undeniably satisfying, and yet it is also expectedly, undeniably satisfactory. But so often is the case of “the adaptation,” and compressing the nearly 900 pages (U.S. version) is the obvious challenge that director David Yates and writer Michael Goldenberg have gracefully met with, for the most part, only marginal compromises.
Everyone is coming and going in the “Order of the Phoenix,” Harry’s fifth year at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft, and the film, borrowing cues, moves briskly along. Unfortunately its flight is a bit too quick at times, soaring by without offering much time to catch a breath, nonetheless explain the whos, whats and whys of J.K. Rowling’s many tangled threads. The pacing feels as bothered as teenage Harry, and rest and structure (read Ron and Hermione) appear too little to control the action.
When Hagrid suddenly returns with his giant half-brother Grawp (an actual giant tethered by the ankle to a large tree in the Forbidden Forest), the reason for his absence remains almost entirely bound in print. As for learning what the “Order of the Phoenix” actually is, good luck if you haven’t read the book. Its explanation – a wizard organization established by headmaster Dumbledore to counter villain Lord Voldermort – flies by in a single line and occupies just as little space and time on screen.
The movie might more accurately become known as “Harry Potter and Dumbledore’s Army,” the on-a-whim student defense squad led by Harry and focused on for the bulk of the movie. It’s also an important aspect of the book, one that has translated to the screen with far greater depth. But when the student army confronts the evil for which it trained, the shrieking sous-villain, Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) is disappointingly downplayed.
During moments like these, “Order” seems to claim little more than technical, yes, wizardry, in its ability to visually realize Rowling’s universe – the magic of the movies, no doubt, but when at the expense of the story the notion of a disservice is not easily shaken.
The best-served and most relished aspects of “Order” are the two opposing female additions – one: the pink and tartly clad Defense Against the Dark Arts abomination, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton); the other the flighty and fluty young witch (nasty connotations withheld), Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch).
Staunton, a British vet, delivers every aggressive falsetto instruction and reprimand with the most viscerally passive restraint, while Lynch, a newcomer from Ireland, is a kind of sweetly naïve reminder of Harry Potter past, back when quidditch was a pipe dream, Dumbledore a kindly old man, and girls and boys exchanged tongues at a safe, mocking distance, instead of between locked arms and lips. (The kiss heard around the Harry Potter fan sites is every bit as awkward as a first teen kiss ought to be).
But the movie does move (and that’s not even the 3-D IMAX version), or more appropriately soar and dash and apparate in and around Hogwarts, the lack of quidditch notwithstanding. It’s a pace that, despite negligible drawbacks, will sweep you along yet again and leave you breathlessly clutching your preorder slip for “Deathly Hollows,” the final book in the series due out Saturday.
Of course that’s also the great shadow looming over the films, and by the credit roll, “Order of the Phoenix” has only cozied our sofa cushions for when we all phone in sick for work, cut class and plop ourselves down for a few days to read.