A glimpse at Platform 9¾ in the first Harry Potter film reveals a colorful, lively place where first-year students board the Hogwarts Express on their way to school. Jump ahead a few years, and it is the sight of one the many nightmarish visions of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007). In what initially appears to be an ordinary transitional scene, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) walks across the platform and sees a motionless figure in the distance amid the smoke and activity. As he moves closer, the figure emerges from obscurity as an expressionless Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), dressed in dark slacks and shirt as opposed to the cloak he donned in the previous film. The “Is it real or not?” question barely registers before we're already on to the next scene aboard the train. The image is fast, but it lingers long afterwards and it recapitulates the film rather well.
Bereft of the childlike wonderment that marked previous entries, Order of the Phoenix is fixated on fear, power, and corruption. Visually and tonally, it is a close cousin to the third installment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But unlike that film, Order of the Phoenix externalizes its thematic and emotional overtones and is less focused on Harry himself. This may seem an odd ploy, considering that of all of J.K. Rowling's novels, Order of the Phoenix is perhaps most fixated on Harry's complicated emotional state. His anger and frustration are at times suggested here, but the film is more effective when it is wading deep into the political underpinnings of the magical world. It reveals an ineffectual government whose corruption is increasingly pronounced and exploited in the wake of Lord Voldemort's return. Stark images inspired by the Third Reich abound, most notably represented by a giant banner of the Minister of Magic holding his chin high and gazing toward the beyond.
Order of the Phoenix is split into two thematic sections. The first of these is a despairing depiction of how a corrupt government willfully denies self-evident truths and manipulates its citizens' grasp of the world. Director David Yates never quite spells out whether the Ministry of Magic is already under the influence of Voldemort or whether its denials are made out of blind fear, but this uncertainty works to the film's benefit. The Ministry of Magic uses Harry and Hogwarts School as emblems of unwieldy methods and progressive ideals that represent a threat to its paternalistic institution. Neither Harry nor Dumbledore is to be trusted, according to the Ministry. As a result Harry feels more isolated, as he is still haunted by his encounter with Voldemort (in the last film) and fears another eventual confrontation.
The other major thematic thread represents Harry's acknowledgment of fellow friends and students who want to assist in the fight against Voldemort. Their resistance is in direct response to the Ministry's stooge at Hogwarts, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), whose affinity for the color pink and chirpy laughter conceal torturous methods of discipline and an 'iron fist' approach to school affairs. In portraying the children's rebellion, Yates manages to lighten the proceedings somewhat to focus on the friendship of children who collectively decide to confront the threatened reality they live in and step into bigger shoes. The newest member of the young cast of characters, Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), brings a much-needed weirdness to group of friends and quickly becomes one of the memorable additions to the later films. Harry also strengthens his ties with mature wizards away from school. Radcliffe's scenes with Gary Oldman (as Harry's godfather Sirius Black) treat the dialogue with delicacy and signify a calmer, quieter approach to dramatic energy than that of Mike Newell in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Given the disparate threads to explore, in addition to handling numerous character introductions and re-introductions, Yates attempts to expedite the plot through use of newspaper headlines and extensive montages that supply pertinent story information. Along the way, many of series regulars slip into the background. These include Snape (the always-perfect Alan Rickman), Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Lupin (David Thewlis), and even Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). This is an unfortunate side effect of a story that must move at a quickened pace to get where it's going. Nonetheless, despite the fluxes in tone and the screenplay's long checklist, the film doesn't feel patched together or rushed. That's because Order of the Phoenix is the first film in the franchise that requires its viewers to have a fairly deep knowledge of the previous films/books. This may account for why the movie seems to be so full of detail and yet unfold with such swiftness. Yet this adds another wrinkle: Despite its deft exploration of fear and companionship, Order of the Phoenix demands more than just its own images and plot developments to attain full effect.
Perhaps Yates recognized that, at this point in the series, addressing the full-scale detail and themes of the story at large would not be feasible, particularly since the screenplay covers so much ground already. He therefore sets a few threads aside—such as sexual discovery and the sad state of many of the characters—and by turn crafts a film that operates nimbly and with a direct, but nuanced thematic center. It doesn't have the same emotional punch as the climax of Goblet of Fire, but it achieves a more consistent tone that I found more satisfying. Yates employs a more sophisticated visual language that is especially palpable during the final duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore and its immediate aftermath. Blending horror tropes with a quick-cut music video aesthetic, these scenes organize the numerous visual and thematic shades into an evocative collection of sights and sounds. As with most of the other sequences, these moments are transient on screen but the images are lasting. In retrospect, these stylistic flourishes laid atop the political intrigue and an anti-establishment banding together of friends help to fashion a more concise and lucid experience than most other entries in the series.
Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art.