Thursday, July 19, 2007

Order of the Phoenix review

There are spoilers for the book and movie in this post. It's also long. You are duly warned.

Order of the Phoenix was always going to be a tricky bit of business to adapt. Despite its many charms, the novel remains probably the weakest of the Harry Potter novels. I always wonder if that’s not due to the circumstances surrounding when the novel was being written.

When Rowling was writing Order of the Phoenix, Pottermania had just hit full bloom. The first three books had been popular, but it was Goblet of Fire that blew things out of the water. Then there was the making of the first movie.

That’s a lot of distractions and pressures for an author. I also can’t help but wonder if her publishers decided to just let her write whatever the hell she wanted and didn’t impose enough editorial control on her.

How else to explain the rambling opening of Order of the Phoenix? Yes, I can understand Rowling wanting to do more than just hit plot points. That she wanted to develop her characters. But she had four basic plot points to hit in those first 150 pages. That Harry was attacked by Dementors, which meant a new threat to him, the trial at the Ministry of Magic, the establishment of the Order of the Phoenix and getting him to school.

Instead we get pages and pages or Harry raging, Sirius sulking and people housecleaning. Captivating stuff.

I say all of this in the preamble to show just how tough adapting the book into a movie was going to be. There are vast swaths to purge, but also trying to retain the charm of the books. The stuff that everyone enjoys reading and, so far, enjoys watching on the big screen. It’s also why I had mixed feelings going into the movie. If it was the book I enjoyed the least, how was that going to work out for the movie?

Surprisingly well, in reality. It’s not my favourite of the movies. The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Philosopher’s Stone keep that title. But I think it’s better than Chamber of Secrets and Goblet of Fire. And a large part of that credit ought to go to the screenplay of Michael Goldenberg.

It’s not just that Goldenberg had a lot to purge from the books to make a two hour plus movie that was still comprehensible. He also took stuff from Rowling’s book and made it better. He tweaked plot points. Took stuff that I found unsatisfactory and made them work.

For example, the whole relationship with Cho and how it ended. They kind of drifted apart in the book. In the movie, it’s handled better. The DA thinks she betrays them to Umbridge and later discovers that she had no choice, as Umbridge used a truth serum on her. It's a little tweak, but it pays off nicely once the leads realize they were wrong about her and feel guilty.

Or how about the fact that a bunch of school kids couldn’t beat, or even hold off for long, a group of seasoned, vicious Death Eaters. Which makes more sense than what happens in the book.

Even the scene at the end where Voldemort tries to possess Harry is handled differently. In the book, it’s just a quick bit at the end of a climatic battle before Voldemort flees. There’s not much to it. In the movie, it is the climax of the battle, with real emotional power. Can Harry, who just lost Sirius and is filled with rage and grief, actually prevent Voldemort from possessing him?

Also a nod for Luna Lovegood, a character that did not charm me in the books as much as she does others. But a combination of his writing and a surprisingly good job for first time actress Evanna Lynch won me over. Luna is a touch otherworldly, definitely a bit crazy, but kind of sad and tragic. Yet she brings humour to the movie. That’s a neat trick.

So if the writing is so good, then what’s the problem with the movie that makes me put it in the middle? A couple of things. While I can offer up high praise for most of the acting, the chemistry between the three leads is surprisingly flat. I attribute this to two reasons. First, Daniel Radcliffe has come a long, long way. He has to because so much of the screen time his devoted to him. If he couldn’t act, the movies would be a disaster. But this is probably his best performance yet as Harry.

At the other end of the spectrum is Emma Watson, who looked surprisingly like she was reading her lines off-screen. That, along with the lack of screen time of the three of them together, kind of sucked some of the joy from the movie. The interaction between the three of them has always been the heart of the series.

The rest of the cast is, of course, uniformly excellent. Although a special hat tip to Imelda Staunton for the wonderfully evil Delores Umbridge. I’m trying to think of a better villain on screen this decade. I’m hard pressed to come up with one. When you steal villainy from Lord Voldemort, you’re doing something all right.

The other problem with the movie is the direction and look. David Yates doesn’t quite do it for me. Perhaps because the first three-quarters of the movie a bit of a downer and seems awfully grey. The light, colour and magic from the first four movies is missing. And yes, this could be a tone he was deliberately going for because the characters are going through dark and uncertain times and dealing with the bureaucrat from hell.

There’s just a lack of flare in the movie sometimes (although there were flashes, like all of the proclamations and the wall of cats). For all that I was impressed with the writing, I do wish Yates could have added more zip to the proceedings. The ending is terrific, with really tense action sequences, plenty of magical battles and a couple of emotionally devastating scenes. But the lead-up can be a bit dry sometimes.

It’s a good Potter and I hope to see it again. With some luck in 3-D IMAX in Ottawa next month. I’ll be curious to see what my second impression of the movie will be.

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