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Dark Phoenix rises to the top of Potter series

by Glen Baity

Weighing in at a solid 870 pages, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a positively gigantic children’s book, longer than your average historical biography and boasting a plot more devilishly complicated than a Rubik’s Cube. Of all the Potter books yet released, I also think it’s the best. The dark turn that closed Goblet of Fire ushered in this moody, sprawling story of secret collectives and raging hormones. It’s year five at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and tensions are coming to a head. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), after witnessing the murder of Cedric Diggory, is a bit cross with everyone these days. Before the school year even begins, he’s threatened with expulsion, branded a liar in the pages of The Daily Prophet and ignored by his mentor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). As the sole witness to the return of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), he faces skepticism and ridicule wherever he goes. Things take a turn for the worse when a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, the kitten-loving sadist Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), begins clamping down on civil liberties at Hogwarts. There’s also the matter of his burgeoning relationship with Cho Chang (Katie Leung) and his strained friendship with Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson). All the Potter books have had their bleak elements, but Phoenix is where the series veered off into the darkest part of the woods. Sure, it’s still packed with magic wands and half-giants and names like “Hufflepuff” and “Grubbly-Plank.” But there’s also very real peril, sadness and loss in this story, to say nothing of its laudable hostility toward bureaucrats and charlatans. The film version retains all of that and still comes in at under three hours. Let’s hear it for director David Yates, who saves the story by trimming some of the arguably unnecessary bits. There are no great diversions here, like the largely unnecessary Yule Ball sequence in Goblet of Fire, and the story benefits immeasurably. This, however, raises its own concerns. Maybe I’m alone here, but after the first four Harry Potter movies, only one of which (Prisoner of Azkaban) actually hung together as a decent film, I started believing these films were being made about 10 to 15 years too early. The books are wonderful, but as of this writing, nobody except Rowling and her editor has any idea how this story will end. At least two main characters, we’re told, won’t live to the final page, one of whom very well might be Harry Potter. So how on earth is a director or a screenwriter supposed to know which plot elements are pertinent in the final analysis? What can you safely keep and what can you shave off? Peter Jackson spent several decades reading and re-reading Lord of the Rings, which is why he was ultimately able to turn an unfilmable book into one of the best movie trilogies of all time. With the benefit of hindsight, he could identify the parts that were important and the parts the story could survive without. No one who has ever made a Harry Potter movie can really say that, and very often it shows. Prior to Order of the Phoenix, only one director, Azkaban’s Alfonso Cuar-n, was bold enough to pare down the story and establish some narrative momentum. In the Potter fan community, Leaving Stuff Out is a potentially cardinal sin, but Cuar-n is a skilled and brave enough director to know that some things have to be sacrificed for the sake of the larger story. Yates, evidently, knows that as well. It’s always possible he cut something that will ultimately be very important, but at least for now, he has made a very entertaining movie. The film is much leaner than the book: There is, for instance, no Quidditch (you won’t miss it), which highlights the fact that the main characters are starting to face more pressing concerns. Harry’s Occlumency lessons with Professor Snape (Alan Rickman, delightful as always) have been abbreviated, and the centaur subplot has been almost entirely excised. There’s more, but you get the idea. What remains is a lean film that is true to the spirit of the book, equal to Azkaban as one of the best of the Potter adaptations. The all-British cast, once again, is top-notch, led by Staunton as Umbridge, whose belligerent smile will give you chills. Radcliffe has always been a great Harry, but in this film, for the first time, one can see flashes of a tremendous young actor with plenty of potential for post-Potter success. Gary Oldman is characteristically brilliant as Sirius Black, though many of his meatier scenes were taken out to streamline the film. No matter, though – Oldman has proven many times over that he can do a lot with a little, and so he does in Phoenix. Word is Yates has been asked back to direct the penultimate film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and I couldn’t be happier about it. In Phoenix he shows restraint and capable pacing, and the movie, it should be said, looks beautiful. After Saturday, the saga will finally be complete, but some of the best parts of the franchise have yet to be filmed. It’s a good time to be a Muggle.

Deduct 10 points from Gryffindor when you send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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