Monday, July 11, 2011

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: Retrospective Part 5

TV director David Yates stepped in for the 5th installment of the hugely successful franchise with Nicholas Hooper as his main musical collaborator. Additionally, Michael Goldenberg stepped in for Steven Kloves who stated the necessity for a break. More importantly, all three Harry Potter rookies had one hell of a task on hand: turning the longest and possibly most complex Potter book into a 2+ hour film. Now the last book (Goblet of Fire) came in at a whopping 752 pages and the film was 2 hours and 40 minutes. Order of the Phoenix? 898 pages! This is the book where Harry starts to fall apart emotionally. The battle is no longer simply with Voldemort; the ministry is after him. And to make matters worse, Dumbledore, the best ally he could ask for, is ignoring him.  Oh and he has a jealous girlfriend, which really doesn't help matters. Basically everything is starting to fall apart around him. The book is long for good reason. Yes, Rowling still has a billion subplots, but this book is pretty tightly wound around Harry's battles against the ministry and Voldemort. And one final detail that is quite pertinent: Order of the Phoenix polarized many fans when it first came out, so the filmmakers were dealing with source material that people were already were mixed about.

It's pretty easy to see where the filmmakers could have fallen apart with this film. To be sure, it was a completely new step in a different direction and Yates succeeds, for the most part. He remained faithful to Cuaron and Newell as best as was possible from a purely visual perspective and even with the storytelling.

But its not all perfect. This is by the way, the SHORTEST film in the series. How did they turn the longest book into the shortest film? As you might have guessed, a lot of content was excised or altered HEAVILY. For example, Harry's girlfriend Cho Chang does not get much time on screen. The fact that she is jealous in the book is never presented on screen. How does Harry determine to break off the relationship? Goldenberg has her betray him. Nice and quick. Does it work? Sure. Were Potter fans happy about it? Not many. This is likely the biggest example of major alterations.

The film moves along rather briskly with unrelenting pace (complete opposite of Columbus in the first two films). However, I'd argue that it almost moves too quickly (the length certainly helps) in some areas. The film does take its time to develop relationships (the moments between Harry and Sirius develop that relationship with greater economy that Cuaron did in his film). But certainly plot points almost seem rushed into the film without getting their fair treatment. The lessons with Snape, for example, come out of nowhere contextually and then finish up rather quickly. The book develops this storyline, the film breezes through it simply to establish it for future purposes.

I would like to emphasize one big positive in my eyes for this film, which is also one of the reasons I hold it in such high esteem. Up to this point, the Potter films while maintaining a strong structure in and of themselves, were held together mostly by the characters from film to film, and seemed to lack a true thematic thread (aside from the good versus evil idea). The theme of friendship and companionship was brought up at the end of a few films as almost a recap of how things were made possible during the course of the films themselves.
But this idea was never fully fleshed out, until Order of the Phoenix. Harry feels under a great deal of stress and great sense of isolation burdens him. As the film opens, Harry is presented on a swing in a lonely arid park. Only his cousin Dudley and his friends are there and right off the bat, Harry is threatened by them. This pretty much establishes the state Harry has to face with everyone for the rest of the film. This is the first film where he does not have the universal support he is used to. The ministry is against him. Dumbledore is ignoring him. And the similarities and connection between him and Voldemort are asserting themselves. He almost feels like he is no different from the dark lord, and this obviously has him upset.  All he really has is Ron, Hermoine, and Sirius. Sirius can't help him because he is hiding. Ron and Hermoine can't really do much about his connection with Voldemort because only he can feel it. The sense of isolation is lessened by the romance with Cho, but even that falls apart when she betrays him. Then he sees an image of Sirius in danger and the story only spirals until Harry is placed at an all-time low. Watching a friend that he barely knew get killed before his eyes was one thing, but watching the only known family he has getting murdered is a traumatic event. To further complicate matters, Voldemort seizes control of his body and almost completely consumes him. But it is at this moment where Yates does something wonderful. He allows Harry to reach a catharsis during this internal struggle and realizes that he is not like the dark lord because people do care about him. He does have friends. He isn't alone. After witnessing a murder first hand in the fourth film, Yates presents Harry's trauma and his dealing with it admirably.

More importantly is that Radcliffe answers the bell in what may arguably be his strongest performance in the entire series. He finally grew into the role in Goblet of Fire and he seems in complete control in this one. The fact that the story places such a great emphasis on his character more than any other of the films, also aids in his being able to exercise the full range of his abilities. Grint and Watson continue their strong work (though their best performances are yet to come) while the addition of Imelda Stauton is a tremendous delight. I have never hated a character in this series as much as hated her, but it was definitely the correct reaction to a strong performance. The Phelps twins exert themselves quite well in this film, particularly in their big shining moment toward the end of the film. The rest of the cast does a delightful job overall.

I will now cite a few of my favorite moments in the film. My opinions on the atmospheric opening that establishes the mood and theme of the film have already been described.  If you have been following the retrospective, you will have noticed that the moments I most love in the films seem to be the delightful, cheerful, colorful moments. In Azkaban it was the Buckbeak flight. In Gobelt it was the preparation for the Yule Ball montage.  In this film, the Dumbledore's Army montage continues that trend. It is not only graceful, charming, and at times hilarious (Filch's attempts and failures at catching the students), but it adds a glimmer of hope amidst a moody dark film. It is also supported by Hooper's best music in the entire film.

Speaking of which, Tom Hooper is in my opinion, the first misstep that this series took musically. Williams is an industry juggernaut and whether you like him or not, he always delivers quality. Doyle may not have the name of Williams, but he has carved out an honorable career scoring films. But Hooper? He has had a career, but Harry Potter was none of his business. He does documentaries and TV shows and TV movies. Save for the aforementioned montage, his music is almost invisible during the film. That can be a good thing, but a big film like this with the wide ranging emotions needs music to match that. And Hooper simply never reaches that level. It was a bit upsetting that he would be back for another film, though he does improve (more on that tomorrow).

Just wanted to make one more mention of the confrontation between Dumbledore and Voldemort. The CGI artists really deserve credit for the epic battle that they created. It is truly a shame that Yates does not draw it out a bit more, though his restraint must be respected. Phoenix is definitely one of my favorites of the lot. Yates still needed to polish his style, but he had certainly delivered the most character driven Potter of the series up to that point (he would top himself in this department).


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