Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Easy come, easy go, I guess. After two films of solid quality injected some much needed life into the film franchise, David Yates, director of the lauded miniseries State of Play, took the reins and set about adapting the longest, most rambling of the Potter books. But never mind that, as the real change behind the camera is Steve Kloves long-awaited (read: the two days since I started re-watching these) departure from the series, to be replaced by Michael Goldenberg. That news alone made me eager to see how the writing compared to Kloves' literal, dispassionate style.
Sadly, Goldenberg's writing does not deviate from this formula, and though he excises the many tangents that sidelined the momentum of the novel, he fails to capture the hidden excellence and relevancy buried within it. After the initial sequence in which Harry and Dudley are attacked by dementors -- the first truly suspenseful moment of the series -- Harry is launched into a world on the brink of destroying itself in panic: Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, heretofore an affable if somewhat detached fellow, refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned, and he's done everything in his power to discredit both Harry and Dumbledore. He jumps at the chance to expel Harry when he learns that the boy used magic outside of Hogwarts, but Dumbledore intervenes, only souring relations between the two further.
Fudge covers his losses by establishing one of his minions, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, eventually promoting her to the gruesome new position of "High Inquisitor." Much has already been written of Staunton's performance, but I really can't stress this enough: her portrayal of Umbridge is, by leaps and bounds, the single finest performance in the film series. She nails Umbridge's shrill, pink-tinged fascism so well you'd almost think Rowling wrote the character out of her performance rather than the other way around. She captures both the insufferable haughtiness of the character as well as her terrifying fascism. The role is notably scaled back in the shortening of the film, yet Staunton commands every second of her screen time, and I highly doubt anyone else who joins the series in the final few films will bring remotely as much to the part as her.
If only the writing had latched onto her coattails and merely ridden it home to its natural conclusion. Order of the Phoenix is a transparent commentary on the staunch conservatism of Thatcherian England but also the more contemporary fascistic nature of the Bush administration. Umbridge, a frilly stand-in for Thatcher, is sent to Hogwarts to monitor the students (and, chiefly, Dumbledore's influence on them), only to go mad with power. Her ability to authorize illegal activities when she wants to use them reflects upon Bush's constant self-absolution, and this might have been a fascinating allegory on sacrificing liberty for safety and delusion now that it had been freed from such aimless subplots as Hermione's championing of the house elf cause.
However, this is a teen film aimed at the broadest possible audience, so Goldenberg takes no risks in making a political statement. A shame; after all, Umbridge's likeness to Thatcher alone could have allowed them to make a commentary on democratic fascism in general as opposed to simply Bush, and anyone who would object to such a thematic exploration likely isn't a fan of these witchcraft books, anyway. Instead, the focus is placed squarely on the budding romantic maturation of the characters, which goes nowhere fast. Ron and Hermione still spend their time sniping each other instead of just admitting what's obvious to everyone, while Harry's relationship with Cho lacks the marvelous awkwardness of the novel's depiction. Order might have been the most interesting Potter movie yet, but it plays more like an angsty television series.
I mean,they could have at least gotten the emotions right. They mis-manage the cause of Harry's angst, though Radcliffe makes the best of it. Ron and Hermione fail to even get laughs in their clichéd inability to tell each other how they feel. Then again, both characters have become so secondary that Watson (who picks things up a bit from the last film but still doesn't match her peak in the third film) and Grint should be happy that they got to be in it at all. When a major character death occurs, it lacks all of the emotional devastation of the novel and instead seems drawn out and boring.
The final battle throughout the Department of Mysteries feels off, not only because the place is greatly simplified from the horrific quagmire of the book. Truth be told, it seems little more than a shinier version of the maze from Goblet of Fire. However, the showdown between Voldemort and Dumbledore is exquisite: far from a drawn-out extravaganza so typical of blockbusters, their fight is, quite simply, nasty, brutish and short. Though it's got some grand spectacle, this is far more fearsome for its brevity and ferocity.
In the end, Yates did a fine job of trimming the fat from the book, but he just so happened to throw the meat out with it. If it weren't for Fiennes and especially Staunton, there'd be practically nothing to this film. It had promise both as a political allegory and as an emotional character exploration, but it failed to materialize anything of substance. I worry that Yates' inability to capture the emotional weight of the story will impact the next film, as it is the darkest and most devastating of the series. Let us hope, however, that he redeems himself.