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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 13, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Director David Yates seems to have come out of nowhere and directed the best Harry Potter movie of them all: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Not only that, he has also signed on to direct the next one as well, and I couldn't be happier.

Not that there haven't been good Harry Potter movies before. In fact, beginning with the third one (Prisoner of Azkaban), the movies have become visually far richer, the stories have become stronger, the acting has been better, the scripts have been sharp and intense, and the directing has improved each time.

Part of this is inherent in the series. When J.K. Rowling started writing the Harry Potter novels, she didn't know what she was doing yet.

Well of course she must have known something -- you don't sell a billion copies of your first novel if you're completely clueless!

My point is that she hadn't yet realized just how deep and rich this story could, would, and should become. When I went through all six existing novels last winter to write my essay for The Great Snape Debate, it was obvious that the first novel was humorous, playful -- Rowling thought she was having fun. She just wanted to show us the delightful place she had imagined.

The book got dark enough by the end, of course, and there were intense emotional experiences from the first novel on. But the tone was simply not serious.

The second novel might have been called The Further Adventures of the Hogwarts Kids, for Rowling had still not found her stride. So it wasn't really all that horrible or inappropriate to have a featherweight director like Chris Columbus direct the first two movies. Cotton candy is pretty much the same at every fair.

The "funny bits" never went away completely, but they no longer were their own reward -- that is, we had our nasty bit of fun at the Dursleys' expense, and a few giggles over Hagrid and house elves, but the slapstick silly humor took up less and less time, being replaced by wit, by real emotions, by a sense of seriousness.

It's as if Rowling as a writer was growing up along with Harry as a wizard -- and the movies have done likewise.

I can tell you right now that there are people who are going to say that this is the weakest of the movies. There are reasons for this:

1. This is the only script that isn't by Steve Kloves. Instead, Michael Goldenberg, the author of the live-action Peter Pan, penned the script to Phoenix. This makes the script an easy target for critics who can't think of anything to say.

2. This story is where Rowling takes the giant leap to a genuinely internal, emotional climax. The crucial moment takes place inside Harry's head -- that is the entire battleground. This is excruciatingly difficult to film.

The secret is to set it up in advance. More than any of the other stories, Phoenix is about community. Harry forms a group of students called "Dumbledore's Army." He is isolated by people who attack his reputation, and tormented by dreams from Voldemort's mind; his response is to isolate himself even further. There is also an adult community -- the Order of the Phoenix -- that Harry aspires to join but is kept out of, perhaps too long.

Showing the development of a community is devilishly hard to do in film. The secret is that the audience must also be brought in and made to feel as if they are a part of what is going on. The closest Hollywood usually comes to this kind of thing is the "buddy film," but when there are only two people in it, of course it's easier to depict a community.

Here, we have to make sense of a bewildering number of people in Dumbledore's Army and the Order of the Phoenix; we also need to keep a sense of the whole student body at Hogwart's, not to mention the Ministry of Magic and Voldemort's army of the Death Eaters.

In short, you can't actually write this script or make this film.

And yet the script was brilliantly written by Goldenberg, and the film was brilliantly directed by Yates.

But to bring it off required that we take time. Readers of the books will miss many bits that have been omitted in order to make time for what had to be there. We had to experience Ron and Hermione as true friends, not just in the moments of crisis, but in some really lovely, playful scenes where we feel the knots of affection and mutual knowledge that bind them to each other and to Harry.

Goldenberg and Yates also did a superb job of the training sequences in the secret room, where Harry becomes the volunteer teacher of the students who are eager to learn how to fight against the Death Eaters (instead of joining them).

They made these scenes intrinsically entertaining -- but there are those who'll call this movie "slow."

Well, it is slow. Slower than the others, anyway. Because it had to be, in order for the story to be told properly. Had it moved faster, we would have cared less.

For me, something happened that took me by surprise. Even though I know these stories backward and forward by now, I found myself getting caught up in the story and moved emotionally to a point where, when Daniel Radcliffe writhed on the floor in the climactic inner struggle, I bought it completely -- I was emotionally inside him, which is a place where filmmakers can almost never take their audiences, no matter how much they wish they could.

If we had had better movies this year, it would not be so easy for me to say that this is the best movie, artistically and emotionally, so far this year. Few movies have tried to accomplish what this one does.

It reminds me, in short, of the movie I tagged as the best a couple of years ago: Peter Pan, written by Michael Goldenberg.

Without anyone taking much notice of it, Goldenberg has actually discovered what all those miserable little screenwriting classes pretend to teach: He has discovered how to tell a real story on film.

We often forget how young an art screenwriting is. But for those of us who work with novels and then try to write screenplays afterward, nothing is more clear than this: Films are simply not as good at storytelling as novels, because the limitations of the art forbid it.

There are certain aspects of storytelling -- spectacle, action -- that movies do better. But our emotional involvement does not come from these. Real emotional involvement comes from a complete investment in the characters.

But screenwriters rarely accomplish this. It is usually done by the actors. That is, the screenwriter creates dialogue, but cannot (unlike a novel) give us enough information for the character to seem to have a soul. So instead, the actor brings his own soul to the film.

This is why Sean Connery's Bond was better than Roger Moore's -- Connery, as an actor, knew how to put his soul out through his eyes, his face, his voice, in a way that Moore simply could not manage. (Which is not a crime -- not many actors are in Connery's league.)

It is the actor that we come to love, when we love anybody at all in a film. Some actors understand that it is their very soul that we must see and love, and so they protect their soul -- they remain good people despite their fame.

That is why Anthony Hopkins and Ben Kingsley, for instance, and Helen Mirren and Emma Thompson, pour all their excellent British acting training into every role, and yet somehow make us care about their characters as so many other British-trained actors simply cannot.

They don't seek, on screen, to be admired: They seek to be understood.

The kind of actor who can bring off this effect is not rare -- in fact, among the best-known stars, the ability to be known (or at least to give the illusion of being known) is a hallmark of the kind of actor that has staying power.

Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, Paul Newman, Robert Redford -- they always make us feel as if far more is going on than their mere words can express, and yet we, the audience, are in on the secret. We get inside their heads and hearts somehow, or at least believe that we do. They let us into the select community of people who get it.

But how many screenwriters have known how to do that? How many can write scripts that accomplish this even for actors who have not yet learned (or were not instinctively blessed with) this ability?

I think Goldenberg is such a writer.

But it doesn't hurt Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix that along with the great script, we had a terrific director getting great performances out of an amazing cast.

We owe much of that cast to Rowling, of course. If the books had not been such a brilliant success, if they had not pervaded the culture as they have, then we would not have had an array of the finest actors Britain had to offer -- even in minuscule roles.

Emma Thompson's role in this film barely amounts to a cameo (though it's very effective); Maggie Smith has only slightly more such moments; yet these are two of the finest actresses alive. Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy) and Alan Rickman are magnificent actors have crucial moments, but not much screen time.

They gave themselves to this film (and perform their moments brilliantly) because they love these stories and wanted to be part of them. Rickman in particular finally had a chance to make Snape something more than merely nasty, and he used it well.

Helena Bonham Carter gets a chance to chew the scenery as Bellatrix Lestrange, and uses it to best advantage (it's the kind of part that acting class students dream of playing). And Michael Gambon, wisely knowing that no one can out-charm the late Richard Harris, plays a truer and more dangerous Dumbledore.

One of the disappointments in the book -- for me, at least -- was that Sirius Black never came to life. No writer brings off everything as they hope, and it's no shame to Rowling that Black is one of those lapses. But this could not be left alone in the film, for there is no climax if we don't feel Harry's love for Black -- and in the film, since we can never get inside Harry's head, the only way to understand how he feels toward Black is to have those feelings ourselves.

That's why it was so crucial that Gary Oldman play this part. I really don't believe there is another actor who could make him so strong and so warm at the same time. Which is why it's a very good thing for these movies -- and for the directors and writers -- that because Harry Potter is such a phenomenon, you can get perhaps the finest actor alive to play such a small part, allowing the movie to reach a climax that might otherwise have been out of reach.

These great actors (and I could list many more) have to do their work with such tiny slices of screen time because this movie spends its time somewhere else.

First, it spends time with Dolores Umbridge, unforgettably (and almost unforgivably) played by Imelda Staunton, a character actress who has already been horrifyingly delightful (hilariously horrifying? -- no, in a word of my daughter's coinage, she was hilarifying) as Charlotte Palmer in Sense and Sensibility; she was also the much-put-upon cook in Nanny McPhee.

As Dolores Umbridge, she personifies every slimy, evil person you have ever known who tormented you while presenting you with a smiling face; she is the creator of meaningless rules, the inflicter of outrageous punishments. If you did not have her as your teacher in third or seventh grade, she was certainly your coach or your boss or the evil co-worker, male or female, who decided you were the one whose pain they wanted to delight in.

The rest of the screen time, however, went to the most dangerous place of all: It was entrusted to a gaggle of child actors.

Think, for a moment, of what the Harry Potter film series has required. Clear back in the year 2000, they had to choose actors to play Harry, Ron, and Hermione, not to mention Draco, Fred and George, and Neville Longbottom.

They were children. And now, seven years later, they have grown up into teenagers. How can you possibly know, in casting children, who will emerge as interesting, talented adult actors?

It is obvious that nothing has been left to chance in the intervening years. The twins James and Oliver Phelps, who play the Weasley twins, were absolutely dreadful in the first movie. You wanted to avert your gaze from the train wreck of their performance. But someone has taken the time and trouble to teach them how to deliver a natural sounding line, so that instead of being cringeworthy, they are a delight to watch.

Nobody could predict who would get to be tall and who would not. Daniel Radcliffe, despite having a giraffe-like neck, is simply not going to be a tall man; Bonny Wright, who plays Ginny Weasley, had better stop growing soon or they may have to recast. And who knew that Matthew Lewis, playing Neville, would grow to be the tallest of them all?

But physical challenges aside, here's what counts: Daniel Radcliffe can act -- well. He actually has, not just the cuteness that the first movies required, but also the talent, the intelligence, and, yes, even that ability to give us the sense of being inside him. When he delivers lines that are emotionally difficult, he strikes the right note every time.

Giving him the part of Harry Potter may be the greatest casting decision in the history of film. I can't think of another child star who not only continued to look the part all the way from childhood through adolescence, but also turned out to be a better actor than anyone knew.

Emma Watson and Rupert Grint as Hermione and Ron did not have Radcliffe's native talent, but they are both smart and directable, and they do all that their parts required.

The only new addition to the cast of young actors was Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood. The movie simplified her character -- gone was her father's job as editor of a National-Enquirer-for-Wizards tabloid. Instead, what's left is a dreamy girl who actually shows Harry how to deal with provocation with patience. I found myself absolutely adoring her performance.

This movie puts a huge burden on a large group of young actors and they all measure up. How much of this is due to the director, how much to the script, and how much to their own hard work and intelligence and talent and training is impossible for a reviewer to guess.

But what we do see is an amazing result: a film that is emotionally alive, not despite being entrusted to children, but because of it.

Ultimately, though, after all the glorious set design and costuming and makeup and special effects, after the wonderfully resourceful scriptwriting and the powerful acting and the wise and compassionate directing, it still comes down to this:

J.K. Rowling wrote a morally complex, illuminating, intelligent, wise, loving, and Good story; by being faithful to her vision, to her tale, these filmmakers were able to create something finer than mere talent alone can create.

For Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is not just entertaining or moving, it is also truthful. It aspires to, and achieves, a serious presentation of what is Good and Beautiful.

It is because of stories like this that I believe the Harry Potter series will be a landmark of literature, perhaps even more than predecessors like The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. It may even end up in the lofty realms occupied by Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice and Huckleberry Finn and King Lear -- stories that are so deep and true that they live forever, needing no interpretation for us to know that they matter, and will always matter.

And the film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a worthy adaptation of a portion of that possibly-great story.

It's also the best movie of the year so far. Considering that the nearest competition consists of two animated movies, one about rats and the other about penguins, I suppose that such a sentence doesn't mean all that much. And perhaps this movie depends too much upon the audience already knowing the story and caring about it; I can't guess whether I would appreciate it so much if it were the only portion of the Harry Potter story that I had seen.

But it was never meant to stand alone, any more than any of the three Lord of the Rings movies could have stood alone.

I only wish someone could go back and magically fix the first two Harry Potter movies to be worthy of the rest of the films. It's sad that no matter what we do, in order to see the Radcliffe performance from beginning to end of the series, we will always have to be guided through the first few steps by the inept hand of a poor director.

It cannot be. I suppose the series as a whole will have to remain imperfect.

But this movie goes a long way toward making us forget the flaws that went before.


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