What with all the organising that went into our Doctor Who party, it was Monday before my daddies were able to disguise me as a PARTICULARLY LARGE Chocolate Frog and smuggle me into the cinema in order to see the latest Harry Potter movie. I should probably mention that there are going to be great big spoilers for this film in my review today – and I would NOT take kindly to any for the final book. So, read on ONLY if you DARE!
Ms J.K. Rolling-Pin's book of "and the Order of the Phoenix" is famously a bit of a DOORSTOP, so we wondered how it would fit down into the space of a film.
There have been various strategies employed for turning Ms Rolling-Pin's books into movies: the first two movies try far too hard to fit in every possible incident and moment of spectacle from the books, resulting in a rather FLAT by-the-numbers outcome. The fourth film strips away almost everything about the school year except for the big set pieces: the three Triwizard Tournament Tasks, the Quidditch World Cup and the Yule Ball. This gives it great pace, possibly at the expense of depth. I still think that the third film is best, because it does its best to BE a film, using visual transitions, fades and wipes and the effects of the changing seasons on the Whomping Willow to show the passing of time through the year, and constantly cutting back to the huge Hogwarts Clock to clue you up that TIME is important in the story.
So how did the fifth film do? Rather well, actually.
It is a story PECULIARLY suitable to the world we live in today. The main threat to Harry this year is NOT evil Lord Voldemort, but actually the "state" (so Lord Blairimort!), in the form of the Ministry of Magic, SEIZING more and more powers (ostensibly to "protect" people) and MANIPULATING the media, here the Wizarding World's newspaper "The Daily Prophet", to rubbish dissenting voices and to blame failures on Harry's godfather, the "dangerous terrorist" Sirius Black.
A lot of the TRICKIER exposition is told through the pages of the Prophet, whirling and unfolding across the screen – ooh, we look forward to freeze-framing the DVD! – which does the double deed of trimming the running time while also reminding us of what an UNRELIABLE NARRATOR the press can be.
In the Ministry of Magic, there's a really rather marvellous poster of Mr Robert Hardy as the Minister in person, Mr Cornelius Fudge, in heroic Soviet/Big Brother pose. We first see it when Harry is brought there to face, basically the INQUISITION – boy, look at Mr Hardy's HAT! – after he and his cousin Dudley (the Dursleys are back after being sadly missing from film four!) are seized by the Dementors. Ouch! Actually, the film never explains (though the book does) just WHO sent the Dementors there in the first place – it's not hard to guess, though: she's always willing to lend Cornelius a hand, and what he doesn't know won't hurt him!
Yes, it is the fabulously named Ms Delores Umbridge, played fabulously by the fabulously named Ms Imelda Staunton. In pink. Lots of pink! Her study, lined with yucky decorative plates all with pictures of HORRIBLE KITTEN MONSTERS is ALMOST more ghastly than the punishments she metes out to Harry in there. (Daddy Alex especially loved the moment when, as Harry Ron and Hermione sneak in, one of the little horrors is seen to leave its picture-plate to go and find her!)
Mr Filch, the school's schoolchildren-hating caretaker, also gets his reward for service in several films so far, with a lot of screen time as he gleefully peppers the walls with Ms Umbridge's "Educational Decrees" and tries to trap Harry and his gang in the Room of Requirement.
And Hogwarts is clearly a SCHOOL again this year (not just a place where Harry's adventures happen), with lessons, lines, illicit Defence Against the Darks Arts practice and O.W.L. examinations. It doesn't QUITE manage to do what "and the Prisoner of Azkaban" did and capture the turning of the seasons and the passing of the school year. But that is SOOOO hard in a two or three hour movie (this one's a touch under two-hours twenty); I think that Harry Potter would be better if it was made as one of those classic thirteen-part BBC serials. Except that would probably KILL the poor young actors that they hired to play the leads!
The pressure of time does mean that a lot of the book's story is trimmed down. The story is told much more as "character notes" than developed scenes. A moment for Neville to reveal his parents' tragedy here; a moment for Professor Trelawney to be humiliated there. It doesn't spoil the flow of the movie, but it IS a bit of a shame that Fred and George's campaign of practical jokes is cut to just one splendid scene (especially since it means that Professor McGonagall's excellent passive rebellion against Ms Umbridge is lost too). A substantial subplot about Mr Weasley being attacked by Lord Voldemort's big snake is reduced to no more that a couple of scenes and, possibly more cuttingly, so is the story of Harry's ROMANCE with Ravenclaw Seeker Cho Chang.
This is perhaps the film's only BUM NOTE. In the book, Harry and Cho FANCY each other but aren't able to make a RELATIONSHIP work. That's actually rather a good lesson to explain to people who are reading.
For the film she is made into the BETRAYER of the Defence Club. EXCEPT… except with Mr Filch sitting outside the Room of Requirement trying to catch them for all that time, and Ms Umbridge blasting her way in with her BOMBARDIO spell, surely means that the bad teachers didn't NEED anyone to betray the club. And then Cho is "redeemed" by the revelation that actually she was slipped a Mickey Finn of Veritaserum[*]… It's all about giving Cho a more CINEMATIC story, but it doesn't really flow.
Nor does it help that young Harry has more screen time – and more CHEMISTRY – with lilting Luna "Loony" Lovegood. She is apparently a fan who was lucky enough to get picked for the role from an open call, but she is absolutely BRILLIANT. Sweet and ethereal and really just what Harry needs. They share a lovely scene where Harry discovers that he can see the spooky horse creatures called Thestrals. Luna explains that, like her, it is because he has seen someone die. In fact in the book, the Thestrals are introduced because Ms Umbridge locks away all the flying brooms – which is trimmed from the film so it's almost ODD that the Thestrals are kept. (ALL of the posters have Harry and his CHUMS on Brooms, don't you know!) I say ALMOST odd, because actually it is obvious that they are there FOR that character scene between Luna and Harry.
Mr Daniel Radcliffe, who has been playing Harry Potter for YEARS now – he DOES keep his clothes ON for this movie, though – is jolly good too. Harry is angry and irrational for a lot of the film, mainly through being a teenager, but also a bit because Lord Voldemort is trying to climb inside his head. Which had got to be worse than zits!
The only person who can cheer Harry up is his godfather Sirius, the aforementioned "terrorist". Mr Gary Oldman is great, capturing the difficult and many-faceted Mr Black. Like Harry he is angry and adventurous and brave and often out of sorts. And obviously he's totally DOOMED.
After all the POLITICS of the main part of the movie, the climax – which sees a great big SORCERERS' BATTLE inside the Ministry of Magic itself – comes as a WELCOME switch to straight-forward goodies versus baddies. Rather magically, the evil Death Eaters
Daddy Alex has an IRONIC thought: this is an authoritarian government, acting out of FEAR, that will do ANYTHING to "protect" people… But it is the reverse of the "protection" that WE have to put up with, as the Ministry of Magic are trying to DENY the war on terror rather than PROFIT by it.
The big Dumbledore versus Voldemort fight is just what you want. Yes, that poster of the Minister gets its just desserts! The climax is one of the biggest diversions from the books, though, and again it is to do with making things CINEMATIC.
In the book, Lord V's final gambit is to try to possess Harry, taunting Dumbledore to destroy him while he's in Harry's body… except Voldemort CANNOT possess Harry because he simply does not understand that love isn't just something that is in Harry's skin but something that is in his SPIRIT. Voldemort, of course, has gone the full RHINEGOLD and foresworn love for power. So he cannot BEAR to exist within Harry and is driven away.
The film, though, makes this a MUCH BIGGER deal, full of visual effects and flashbacks. And the film makes it much more a CHOICE for Harry – Harry choosing to reject, even to pity Voldemort. Dumbledore gets the power; Harry makes the choice. This is right for both and means neither seems less important.
This time the moviemakers' decision is QUITE RIGHT. The book's explanation needs to be read to be understood; the film's version only works as a moment of drama. Each is just right for its own medium.
So it is a pretty good film, full of lots of good actors who are very generously working for the three seconds of screen time they've each been given. AND it has some things to really think about – questions of politicians and terrorists and truth. Not bad for a "kids" blockbuster!
Unfortunately, Daddy Richard now wants to see TRANSFORMERS. Cars: Hooray! Robots: Yuck!
[*]Daddy misreads Veritaserum as "Veritas Serum" - Oh no! It turns you into a dodgy orange Europhobe! he says.