Dread pervades Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the series’ most propulsive and altogether satisfying installment. It’s not just the story that’s dark: it’s the film itself. From the opening section, which finds Harry fending off an attack by Dementors in a storm sewer near his neighborhood and running afoul of wizard rules prohibiting spell-casting in the presence of Muggles, through the installation of a chillingly polite authoritarian named Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as Hogwarts’ new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and future grand inquisitor, to the near-collapse of the wizard world’s governing body, the increasingly ossified and timid Ministry of Magic, Phoenix is steeped in a mix of fear and futility confirmed by the movie’s visuals, photographed by cinematographer Slawomir Idziak. They’re bleached-out, silvery—reminiscent of Emmanuel Lubezki’s work in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, a stealth black-and-white film with lonely daubs of color. The movie seems to have been bled by leeches. The gloom doesn’t begin to lift until Harry and company abandon faith in their elders and institutions and re-create a young magicians’ insurgency that Harry’s father helped form the last time Voldemort loomed; from that moment on, director David Yates slowly and subtly restores warmth to the film’s palette, to the point where the images mimic the hard luminescence that distinguished The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Goblet of Fire. The visuals still favor darkness, though. When events turn against our heroes, light and color ebb again, then return on tiptoe, and in nighttime shots of the heroes zipping around Hogwarts or London on brooms, they’re nearly silhouetted, and the backgrounds are shadowy compared to similar scenes in Chris Columbus’ early installments, which were often overlit in the manner of a mid-60s live-action Disney adventure. Throughout, the movie rides a melancholy undercurrent, born of the young heroes’ suspicion that adults are corrupt, uncaring or helpless, and that only your friends can see you through.
The anxious air isn’t just stirred by the increasingly bold provocations of returning supervillain Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), a.k.a. He Who Shall Not Be Named. It’s also a byproduct of the Harry’s feelings of isolation, weariness and self-doubt. More than any previous Potter movie, and more so than almost any big-budget franchise since Lord of the Rings, Phoenix acknowledges the emotional toll of heroism. Poor Harry is battered and wrung out; his encounter with Voldemort at the end of The Goblet of Fire has afflicted him with nightmares (unfortunately conveyed in fashionable strobe-flash bursts, a la The Jacket). And despite the near-legendary status accorded by his peers, deep down Harry knows he’s not a messianic warrior king—just a talented young wizard who defeated a series of much more powerful foes thanks to good luck and a little help from his friends. When the hated Umbridge rises to power at Hogwarts—removing real danger from spell-casting exercises, punishing students for the vaguest hint of disrespect and posting proclamations on the schoolhouse wall—Harry rises to the occasion. His comrades include the increasingly poised Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), brave but still-nerdy Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), good-natured dork Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), lovely and hesitant Cho Chang (Katie Leung), and a moon-eyed kook named Luna Lovegood, played by Evanna Lynch, an authentically weird actress whose counterintuitive line deliveries are the film’s most delightful special effect. (Potter-heads already know that Harry has his first kiss with Cho, and I’m told this is consistent with the novel, which I haven’t read; nevertheless, I’m bummed that Harry didn’t smooch first with Luna, whose Wednesday Addams deadpan will be catnip to young nerds everywhere.)
But even as Harry makes like a teenage Morpheus, there’s no swagger in his step. He’s doing the job because someone has to, and because his fellow insurgents assume he’s the best candidate, having faced terrors most of them have only read about. He’s a shell-shocked young veteran instructing cadets on the reality of combat. There’s a newfound gravity to this character—nicely articulated by Radcliffe, whose “old before my time” seriousness and ego-free toughness are just right—but it’s tempered by Harry’s fear of inadequacy before evil. The film’s alternately doubting and exultant mood—encapsulated by Radcliffe’s nuanced performance—at times reminded me of George Harrison’s great solo debut, All Things Must Pass, arguably flower-power-rock’s most moving contemplation of love, cruelty, spiritual yearning and the quest for self-knowledge. One of its finest songs, “Beware of Darkness,” could double as the viewer’s admonition to Harry:
Watch out now, take care
Beware of the thoughts that linger
Winding up inside your head
The hopelessness around you
In the dead of night
Beware of sadness
It can hit you
It can hurt you
Make you sore and what is more
That is not what you are here for.
Am I overselling the movie? I hope not, but given the genre—a slick, big-budget fantasy, designed to fit into a series whose formula is established—such are the risks. The fifth Potter isn’t a transcendently great adventure, nor is it a work of pop art to rival Metropolis, Close Encounters of the Third King, Blade Runner, Brazil and City of Lost Children (movies that were stylistically accessible but more wholly original; watching them, both fans and detractors could say, “I’ve never seen anything like it”). Phoenix’s excellence falls within a narrow bandwidth that includes the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and X-Men pictures and much of Pixar and Disney’s animated output. It has inherent constraints and occasionally bursts them, delivering more humor and feeling, and a smidgen more complexity, than you expect. It personalizes—makes idiosyncratic—a property that ultimately belongs to Potter creator J.K. Rowling, and that has a fiduciary duty to replicate the essence of its source.
Yates, an English TV and indie film veteran who has never worked on this scale before, doesn’t re-invent the wheel here, but his direction has real snap—a Howard Hawks agility. Everything happens a wee bit faster than you expect—except in the final 20 minutes, which, like all the Potter films, center on pyrotechnic exchanges of sorcery that ultimately become wearying. (It was the only part where I stole a glance at my watch—not because it was poorly done, but because it felt like the end of every Harry Potter film, and the most tedious parts of the Rings movies.) There’s nothing in Phoenix as unexpected and splendid as the way Alfonso Cuarón and his cinematographer, Michael Seresin, directed the time-travel sequences in The Prisoner of Azkaban—in sinuous, De Palma-seque, super-long takes. But Phoenix is more consistently delightful from start to finish than any previous Potter film. It is to this series what The Empire Strikes Back was to the Star Wars saga: authentically dark with a light touch. Speed is Yates’ ally, exemplified in a tracking shot past Potter’s chums as they gorge on magic sweets. Yates shows the children’s delight in devouring the candy, and a split-second later, the ill effects (a wattle the size of a hillbilly beard; an eruption of M&M-sized zits), always keeping the previous victim in frame as he reveals the next.
The film also displays an old-movie knack for visual metaphors that are simplistic in essence but subtle, sometimes profound, in execution. On the day of Harry’s appearance before the high council’s governing body on charges of using magic in a Muggle’s presence, there’s a shot of Harry and company riding an elevator alongside magical memos—paper airplanes that fly themselves. A later scene in Umbridge’s classroom starts by following another enchanted paper airplane as it spirals through the air; then the memo transforms into a paper bird; then it catches fire, courtesy of the off-screen killjoy, Umbridge. This is, first and foremost, a sight gag, but it ties in with one of the film’s themes: the adult reflex to stifle youthful assertions of independence, even when they’re harmless—and in so doing, foment resentment, so that resistance flowers into rebellion. In its natural state, the memo represents the status quo; then the kids make it into something new, something that expresses their restless need for play and their desire to remake the world in their image; then a representative of adult authority literally destroys what they’ve done, re-asserting the primacy of the status quo. Another, more moving example occurs in a scene in the forest outside Hogwarts where Harry talks to Luna Lovegood (why the James Bond films didn’t already use this name is a mystery) while feeding thestrals, spooky creatures that look like skinless winged horses. Luna explains to Harry that thestrals “can only be seen by people who’ve seen death.” As she tells Harry of her mother’s demise in a spell-casting accident, she feeds a baby thestral, first by tossing it an apple (which it ignores), then a slab of red meat (which it devours). When the foal’s snout dips toward the meat, Yates cuts to a scene in Hogwarts’ mess hall, starting with a closeup of Ron Weasley tearing into a sausage. This, too, initially reads as a mere sight gag, but it plugs into the story’s core as surely as the paper airplane business. Harry, Luna, Ron and the series’ other significant young characters are baby thestrals—unsettling but deep-down-beautiful creatures whose specialness is associated with trauma.
These moments rarely play like heavy lifting; they’re of a piece with the picture’s fleet-footed sense of fun, spurred by Yates’ altogether reasonable attitude toward Rowling’s writing (he’s respectful of her imagination but not leadenly servile, like Columbus, who insisted on reminding you every two minutes how magical it all was) and to a huge cast of ace character actors you’re nearly always glad to see: Gary Oldman as Sirius, wise and gentle yet intangibly, irrefutably badass; Maggie Smith as the spiky McGonagall; Emma Thompson as the hapless-seeming Sybil Trelawney, peering at the world through Mr. Magoo glasses; Michael Gambon as the heroically obstinate Dumbledore; Imelda Staunton as Umbridge, twitting about in her psychedelic Jackie Kennedy outfits and spouting soul-crushing aphorisms like Mary Poppins’ wicked stepmother; Ralph Fiennes as imperious Voldemort, who’d be scary even without the leprous nose-hole; and most delightful of all, Alan Rickman as Snape. Rickman’s line readings, like Ian McDiarmid’s in the Star Wars films, have a self-awareness which suggests the character realized long ago that he was a character in a drama and can’t believe no one else has figured it out. (He’s the Thomas Crown of acting: there’s no scene he can’t steal.) The film’s admixture of unease and joy holds together, and it’s consistent with Sirius Black’s assurance to Harry that darkness and light coexist in every human soul, and that “what matters is what we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”