Darkest, Harryiest, Most Political Potter

'Order of the Phoenix' rises.

By Steve Burgess 13 Jul 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess reviews films for The Tyee every second Friday.

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Hogwarts meets Star Wars

Hollywood loves successful brands, so that's what we get. But there's a happy difference between sequels -- frequently tired, pointless and forced -- and legitimate movie series. The Harry Potter series may be unique. I can't name any other serials consisting (eventually) of seven full-length major motion pictures. Best of all, five movies along the Potter series is, increasingly, something to be grateful for -- an annual highlight in a summer season usually devoted to cinematic dreck.

As advertised, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is by far the darkest J. K. Rowling adaptation yet. Those who've followed the films since the beginning may find themselves thinking back fondly to the first movie and how relatively simple -- if magical -- it all seemed. Harry was the wide-eyed boy hero, faithful friends by his side. Those were the days. While Potter #5 is not exactly Werner Herzog, it is astonishing how different from the early films its tone can be. Never mind Lord Voldemort -- this time Harry is often his own worst enemy.

He does have competition for the job. There's a new sheriff in Hogwarts, and her name is Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. When it comes to fascist fashion, Ms. Umbridge is out to prove that pink is the new brown. Always done up in various shades of "It's a Girl!" Umbridge sets about building her power base, as the school's faculty splits into fractious political sides. (See if Umbridge doesn't remind you of a certain Surrey school board trustee.)

'Antithesis of magic'

The movie offers a certain amount of spectacle, including a quick tour of London minus the $20 ham sandwiches. The Muggle city is offered as a sleek, modern contrast to the gaslight-and-vacuum-tube world of the wizards. Technology, director David Yates seems to be saying, is the antithesis of magic.

But to a surprising degree, this movie is about politics. Not the petty kind -- closer to the 1930s Germany kind. The reappearance of Lord Voldemort has caused a nasty split in the wizard community. The Daily Prophet newspaper is spewing dark propaganda about Harry Potter and Hogwarts head master Dumbledore, as their allies struggle to form a cohesive front against the gathering evil. Meanwhile, the ever-smiling Umbridge gradually strips away student liberties while narrowing the scope of their education. Based on a book that appeared in 2003, the themes feel particularly timely, if a little broadly drawn.

Most striking is Harry's battle with his own demons. He is not always a likeable young wizard. And in a revelation that demonstrates the bravery of Rowling's storytelling, we discover that even Harry's late, idolized father was capable of being a sneering, bullying jerk. More than one established character is shown to be the product of a painful childhood, rejected by parents or tormented by peers. Not many of Hollywood's simplistic summer entertainments have that kind of dramatic courage.

Calling Star Wars

Sometimes this movie doesn't either. Order of the Phoenix occasionally slips back into the sort of typically satisfying resolutions that feel at odds with the rest of the film. Some critics have complained that the movie is uneventful and overly grim. But there's plenty going on here, and the movie is at its best when it avoids the temptation to engage in crowd-pleasing antics.

Perhaps unavoidably, the Potter storyline contains echoes of the original Star Wars trilogy, and fans of that series may note that Order of the Phoenix is rather like J. K. Rowling's own Empire Strikes Back. That movie was the dark middle section of the trilogy, offering no satisfying resolutions but proving to be the best of the series regardless. Empire perhaps promised more than that original George Lucas series ever really delivered. I hope Harry Potter and friends will do better. As it is, you've come a long way, Harry. Bring on the Half-Blood Prince.

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