March 02, 2008

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix would be a less frustrating experience if it were an outright failure. Instead we get occasional moments of brilliance trapped like flies in amber by incompetent editing and a fundamentally flawed screenplay. Scenes that should build up each other don't; characters are introduced to deliver setup up that is never followed through with the pay off. Most importantly, after coming off the fourth film — which so brilliantly navigated both the word and the complex network of characters — it's depressing to see characters trotted in and out like cardboard cutouts to deliver bits of ham-fisted exposition. A lot of complex story managed to stick around for the movie, but too much of the characterization did not.

In David Yates's film, there are only two truly developed characters: Harry Potter and Senior Undersecretary to the Minister Dolores Umbridge. The power struggle between the two grounds the core of the film, and plays out rather satisfyingly in a One Flew Over the Cookoo's Nest sort of fashion. Both Daniel Radcliffe and Imelda Staunton turn in terrific performances. The problem is that everyone else is left portrayed as two-dimension bystanders. From the moment Harry wards off a Dementor attack against him and his cousin at the very beginning, the explanations begin and never stop. Scene after scene of explaining; by the time the train reaches Hogwarts I was already exhausted by it and certainly didn't care. Here is a movie full of characters that had previously tickled me and moved me. And now all they seem to do is explain. In a way, Umbridge's high-pitched little cough came as a relief. She may be torturing poor Harry, but at least she's not wasting time explaining anything.

And yet, Umbridge is not a relief. So focused is Yates on the political undertones of her reign of terror, she is allowed to stamp out most of the fun in the film as well as in Hogwarts. The only exceptions come in the scenes when Harry takes it upon himself to train his classmates in secret so that they will be prepared for the war the Ministry refuses to admit is coming. The magic stifled everywhere comes to life with color and spark. It's a hopeful sign that the kind of fun this series had previously provided dependably hasn't been eradicated, just momentarily repressed.

There are flashes of inspiration. Ron Weasley, given nothing important to do as usual, is one of the few characters unobstructed by exposition. Rupert Grint's portrayal as an amiable everyman adds real depth to the character without sacrificing any of his previous charm or humor. And in a film this dreary, every once of humor is essential. News coverage in The Daily Prophet is put into motion with real humor, deftly handling the politics and the exposition far more clearly, concisely and cinematically than the vast sum of dialog. Likewise, Yates unabashedly weaves in flashes from the previous four movies to construct flashes into Harry's mind. Anyone who has stuck it out to the fifth film will have accumulated a lot of affinity for this movie series, and that provides automatic emotional gravitas that the film struggles to develop on its own. It's a fitting acknowledgement of the unique journey this film project has taken.

But the filmmaking failures are fundamental. The editing is not merely unevenly paced but actively chaotic. It's like all of the connective tissue was stripped out. Prisoner of Azkaban moved fast — often too fast — but it always moved fluidly. Here characters will be twenty yards away in one shot and then right next to Harry by the next cut. Occasionally a crowd will appear in a room mid-scene without ever being shown entering. The result not only disorients but paralyzes. Each occurrence distracts savvy audience members from the story.

On a macro level, it felt like chunks of the movie were missing. Not stuff from the books, mind you, but the movie itself. Like a bad airline edit where chunks are yanked out to bring it down to time. Screen time was wasted introducing Kreacher, but his big scene in the book never made it to the movie. Either the character should have been removed or the storyline should have been completed. Another character is brutally attacked in one scene and returned from the hospital, presumably months later, in perfectly adequate health. Either the scene should have been cut or the storyline should have been completed. There were several other examples of this phenomenon. Leaving out a few would have made room for the others to breathe and develop to a resolution.

The only part of the film that works as an intact experience is the climax in the Ministry of Magic. The editing is not troublesome, the dialog is kept minimal, and the exposition is finally out of the way. It plays off the training sequences earlier in the scene to give us a core group that we are familiar with, employing an arsenal of techniques which we have seen them learn. They are outmatched by the bad guys in a very claustrophobic environment, but prolong the inevitable for a tense couple minutes. When the good guys sweep in, the battle of shadows and light (a complete departure from the book) shows that the kids still have a great deal more to learn.

Most fascinating is the final duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort. They engage in a pyrotechnic battle of the elements, but what they're really fighting for is Harry's soul. Daniel Radcliffe does a terrific job playing Harry possessed, and a moment comes that best utilizes the flashes from previous films. Voldemort assaults his mind, drives into the very core of Harry's being, and all he can dig up are memories of love and companionship. Dumbledore, in a particularly gentle and singularly powerful moment for Gambon in the role, whispers in Harry's ear. The same Dumbledore who has determinedly ignored Harry all year demonstrates in a single sentence how much he understands him: "Harry. It isn't how you are alike; it's how you are not." Then Harry does something extraordinary. In a showcase of the human spirit, he moves past the unmagical and almost antiseptic rest of the movie, past everything that has been taken from him, and meets Voldemort's furious power with pity because the Dark Lord will never know love. Considering how the bulk of the movie is, that gloriously earnest moment was like a slap across the face it was so beautifully human. For the first time in a Harry Potter movie, I was nearly moved to tears.

Then the scene ends and the qualities that previously frustrated me reemerge. The emotional climax of the book, in which Harry breaks down in Dumbledore's office, is too stripped down to carry any of its original power. When the film finally cuts to the credits, my disappointment in the whole still outweighed my appreciation for many of the well-executed parts. To be fair, it's the hardest of the seven books to translate to the screen. And yet I can't help feeling a little disappointed. When I left the theater for Goblet of Fire it was the jazzed feeling of experiencing a new classic. When I left the theater tonight it was the uneasy feeling of experiencing a "That would have been better
if..."(**½)


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