If the previous film in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, ended with Harry navigating, as part of a competition, a maze that leads to a fateful confrontation, the new film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, depicts Harry’s own soul as a maze in which rages a clash between virtue and vice. In its focus on Harry’s internal battle and in its crafting of a dark, ominous tone and setting, the film is at its best. The shortest film in the series, from first-time Potter director David Yates, Order of the Phoenix never overcomes the weakness of its bloated and somewhat plodding source: J. K. Rowling’s fifth book in the series runs 870 pages and has the sense of an unnecessary book that simply prolongs the inevitable final showdown between Harry and his nihilistic nemesis. What is worse, the film inexplicably omits a crucial bit of the book’s dialogue, the absence of which is apt to foster misunderstanding concerning an issue central to the entire series.
Devoted fans of the books will no doubt be disappointed with all that is left out; this is, for example, the first film without a Quidditch match. The brief appearances of Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney make you wish Rowling had assigned that character a greater role in the story. Even some of the main characters, such as the newly assertive Ron and the suddenly antinomian Hermione, end up being marginalized. The most impressive performance is Alan Rickman’s role as Snape. Newcomer to the Pottter series, Helena Bonham Carter, looking a good bit like her Fight Club character, is marvelous as the villainous Bellatrix Lestrange.
By far the most important newcomer is the actress Imelda Staunton, who plays Dolores Umbridge, a member of the Ministry of Magic who remains in denial about Voldemort’s return and has designs on a complete takeover of Hogwarts Academy. Umbridge is installed as the new teacher of Defense Against the Dark Arts, from which position she acts as ministry spy, as upright and gleeful punisher of children, and eventually as head of an inquisition aimed at rooting out all those who believe forbidden truths. With her sequined, pink outfits, her matching office décor, and her proper appearance, Umbridge’s very presence suggests the formulation of a principle that adults who are always smiling ought never to be trusted.
Staunton is perfect for the part. As her viciousness becomes increasingly evident and as the Ministry of Magic takes greater control over the school, rebellion, encouraged by trusted, winking teachers, becomes virtuous. The situation provides an unexpected opportunity for the prankster Weasley twins to achieve freedom and academic glory, of a sort. About to be expelled, they acknowledge that their future is “outside the world of academic achievement” and decide to go out in a grand act of revolt against an oppressive bureaucracy. What ensues is a wonderfully entertaining sequence of mayhem.
Those lighter moments are pretty rare in this film, whose center is the struggle in and for the soul of Harry Potter. Caught between the past (memories of witnessing Voldemort’s murder of his friend Cedric) and the future (the certainty that he will have to face a revived Voldemort), Harry finds himself overcome by anger and frustration. He is also piqued at the lack of communication and guidance from his mentor, Dubledore, who now ignores him without any explanation.
Mapping Harry’s interior battles is a challenge for the filmmaker, who cannot rely so much on physical quests or external fights. The film does a marvelous job of creating and sustaining a sinister mood. The tone is set in the opening scene, where Harry has an altercation with his bullying cousin Dudley Dursley. In an open field, the sky suddenly darkens and nature itself anticipates an unnatural assault. Then dementors, soul-sucking fiends, whose very presence turns the world cold and makes all happiness dissipate, appear and begin to attack Harry and Dudley.
Under the supervision of cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, whose credits include having worked with Polish filmmaker Kieslowski, the visuals, which highlight barren, winter landscapes as well dark and stormy settings, are quite strong. The plot itself, which follows moments in which Harry experiences joy or happiness with terrifying afflictions, reinforces the sense of entrapment. Harry’s much-discussed first kiss with Cho Chang is followed by a nightmare in which he visualizes a serpent’s attack on Mr. Weasley as it is actually occurring. If witnessing the attack were not disturbing enough, Harry’s point of view is even more frightening. He sees the events from inside the snake and comes away with the experience of having performed the assault himself. Continuing the pattern of joy crushed by distress, the plot has Harry experiencing another harrowing vision just as the school celebrates the Weasleys’ disruption of the entire administrative system. In the midst of general exultation, Harry collapses and has a vision of his godfather, Sirius Black, being tortured by Voldemort.
In what is generally a solid effort, there are flaws. That film does not adequately prepare for the first kiss between Harry and Cho. Aside from the kiss lingering a bit too long, the dramatic problem is that Cho’s character is vacant; there is no chemistry between her and Harry. The film also makes a mistake, for the sake of concision, when it assigns to Cho the role of traitor to the cause of Dumbledore’s Army, rather than (as the book has it) to one of her friends. Although the film makes clear that Cho was an unwilling cooperator, her folding under pressure is a harsher judgment than she deserves, particularly in a film that repeatedly highlights the heroism of those who resist even torture to defend the good.
A more problematic failure has to do with the film’s elimination of an exchange, toward the end of the book, between Dumbledore and Voldemort concerning the evil of death. After informing Voldemort, “merely taking your life would not satisfy me,” Dumbledore adds, “your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness.” The cutting of this bit of dialogue makes potentially misleading the subsequent discussions and battles. (For more on this scene and the big issues in the Potter universe, see Alan Jacobs’ comments in anticipation of the July 21 release of the final book in the series at Christianity Today.) Why is this omission significant?
If death is the greatest evil, then Harry’s struggle to resist Voldemort becomes pointless or, as Voldemort himself claims, foolish. That battle for the soul of Harry runs through the entire film. With Harry’s access to Voldemort’s mind and emotions comes the frightening prospect of Voldermort’s access to Harry’s thoughts and feelings. Then there is Harry’s growing worry, based in part on his penchant for rage, that he is becoming more like Voldemort. Ire, jealousy, and pleasure in cruelty — these are characteristics of Voldemort, as is the ruthless control of others.
In the penultimate scene, Voldemort attempts to enter Harry’s soul and control his will. But memories of Harry’s friends and family come flooding through. He resists Voldemort and tells him that he will “never know love or friendship,” to which the Dark Lord responds that Harry is a fool who will “lose and lose everything.” But what counts as loss and what, as victory? Beyond its inordinate visual reliance upon the motifs of Star Wars, including the use of Darth Vader style masks, the final scenes create the impression that victory consists “merely” in killing the enemy. If that were the case, then Voldemort would be wining by virtue of having killed many of those closest to Harry.
The deeper contention of the books, however, is that death is not the greatest evil and thus that apparent defeat, even loss of life, can, in certain circumstances, be victory. Harry’s final proclamation that he and his cohorts, in contrast to Voldemort, have something for which to fight sounds rather prosaic in comparison with the words of Dumbledore that the filmmakers have bafflingly excised from the script.