Kerry added a comment to my last post, innocently asking, “What’d you think about the movie in general?” Be careful what you wish for, Kerry, because I just might write 2,000 words about it.
I made notes on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix the night I saw it, but wanted to give it some more thought before writing up a proper review. Since then though, it’s been too painful to think about, so I’ve been avoiding it. It’s because I really wanted to say how great it was, but I can’t, not without reservations, and that makes me feel like a traitor to the cause.
On the one hand, all of the details we love are in the books, so no matter what the film versions get right or wrong, we can always turn to the original pages to relive our favorite bits. So to complain about what I didn’t like seems petty because the film makers are only trying to make a film, and as they have been with the last four, they’re limited by time.
On the other hand, they’ve been given really excellent, detailed, moving material to work with. The characters are complex, the plot is compelling, the magical details are both fantastic and realistic, and the dialogue is natural. Sure, it won’t all fit in to two hours (which is why they should have gone for three – or four and brought back that old time tradition, the intermission), but there’s really no excuse for not getting most of the important things right. And don’t tell me they were held back by their budget, because this franchise has made more than $1 billion, so they know that they’ll make back whatever they spend. And frankly, I’m tired of making excuses for why what could very easily have been a stellar film just came out pretty good.
First, to start on a positive note, here’s what I thought was excellent:
1. Umbridge. Not as fat as I pictured her, but perfectly pink and sadistic and Republican.
2. Ralph Fiennes is totally freaky. He’s got the role of Voldemort down pat. Clearly, he’s done his reading and understands the character’s strengths and weaknesses.
3. The special effects were very cool, particularly the last 20 minutes or so. I haven’t seen the 3D version yet, but I look forward to it.
4. Neville has always been one of my favorite characters and the people who did the original casting got very lucky that Matthew Lewis was able to grow into the role and do it properly. We didn’t get to see the St. Mungo’s scene, (which is a shame because it’s so excellently written and adds so much depth not only to his character but to Harry’s understanding of just how much he and Neville have in common), but he did the best he could with the clumsy expositioning they made him do to get around that.
5. Ginny was set up very well for her role in the next film.
6. Ron and Hermione’s burgeoning romance was handled well. It’s one example of how several little scenes can be left out without compromising the entire plot, just by adding a line or two here and there (and a shy, flirty smile).
7. Evanna Lynch’s Luna Lovegood was just spacey enough to fit the role without going over the top.
And now, the unfortunately longer list of what I didn’t like/wish they had changed/can’t believe they thought they could get away with.
1. The opening. Right off the bat, it just felt strange. The other openings that start with Harry at the Dursleys are funny because they take the very suburban, un-magical, stereotypical world and make it collide with the world of magic. This time, instead of contrasting the gloomy dementors with flower beds and picket fences, they created some kind of post-apocalyptic Little Whinging. The whole world felt empty and gloomy, almost like the dementors belonged there, which wasn’t the point at all. Which brings me to…
2. Miss Figg. All wrong. She should be frazzled and scared and have a sense of urgency about her. Instead she looked like she stumbled upon Harry by accident, was slightly drugged, and very stupid. She’s not a very significant character, but that’s even worse. If you can’t even get the bit parts right then what kind of mess will you make of the important parts?
3. Oh, right. You get Michael Gambon’s full-of-rage Dumbledore. In his defense, he had to follow Richard Harris, who knew exactly how to play Dumbledore – calm, but full of power. Maybe Gambon felt he had to make his own mark on the role, or maybe he’s never actually read any of the books, but he’s completely missed the boat. Dumbledore is such a good wizard, he makes it look effortless. He is always in control, always knows more than he lets on, and always minds his manners. Gambon just comes off as loud, angry, and out of control.
I still hate the scene in Goblet of Fire, right after Harry’s name comes out of the cup. In the book, Dumbledore of course knows right away that he’s being set up. In the film though, he rushes in, wild-eyed, and screams at Harry, practically accusing him of putting his own name in. It’s a wonder why Harry would ever trust anyone like that. Watching Gambon this time, I actually found myself relieved by the thought that Dumbledore would die in the next film. He’s sure to ruin more scenes first, but at least we won’t have to sit through a seventh film with him in it.
4. Percy is back, but he doesn’t have a single line, and no one refers to him. There’s no mention of how he’s pushed away his entire family. Considering one of the running themes is how Voldemort spreads evil by coming between people, and that only friendship and trust will help to bring him down, you’d think that this would be an important point, but it isn’t brought up at all.
5. Hagrid only has two scenes, Lupin is given just a couple of lines, the Creevy brothers no longer exist (but someone named Nigel does), Draco has maybe one line, Dobby is gone – his plot points are given to Neville again – and Tonks is barely introduced. Where did all the characters go? Even McGonagall may as well have stayed home, as her abrasive, strong, loyal character has been rewritten as a weak pushover with about three lines. Who in their right mind dared to mess not only with the part, but with the acting prowess of Dame Maggie?
6. This will make me sound terrible, but Harry didn’t scream enough. With all of his nightmares, his burning scar, the horrible pain he’s put through when he sees Mr. Weasley, I was expecting a blood curdling, primal, growing-pains-gone-ballistic scream. Instead, he just sweated a lot, writhing in bed, moaning. It was more erotic than painful and scary, and I got the feeling that the cinematographer had some weird fetish with Daniel Radcliff’s chiseled jaw, what with all the close-ups it got. Maybe he saw Equus one too many times. Dan is growing into his looks, but I still prefer goofy, loveable Rupert.
The Bigger Issues
Overall, I felt the pacing was off. There were a few times were I felt like I was watching a series of clips from the movie, or an extended trailer, and I thought to myself, “These scenes look really good. I can’t wait to see the whole thing!” But then I would remember this was the whole thing. Maybe they did film this to be a three hour movie, and at the last minute just decided to snip a little here and there.
I know they can’t include everything from the book, and that’s ok. But there are two things they didn’t include that I found shocking. There’s no time for Quidditch? Fine by me. No time to make Ron and Hermione prefects? Ok. No centaur to replace Trelawney? Understandable. No scene with Harry and Cho on a date? Whatever.
But. It was never made clear that Snape did help Harry at the end. No mention of how he summoned the Order, leading to Harry’s rescue. Snape is set to be a major player in the end, so I think that Harry’s struggle to see him as both good and evil is important.
Also. The school felt too small. Actually, the whole world felt too small. Past movies have done a good job of making the wizarding world feel big and real and complex. This time we got the same group of about 30 kids in all the scenes, Hogsmeade was deserted, the Hogwarts Express now stops somewhere out in the middle of a forest (with no lake or castle in sight) and as I said before, even Little Whinging looked dead. Cuaron made the wizarding world feel huge and alive, but Yates made most scenes look like they were made on a cheap BBC soundstage. You could say that it was done on purpose to show how bleak things are with Voldemort back in power, but again, I think that misses the point. Harry is supposed to feel alone, but in contrast to those who live in happy, ignorant bliss around him. There’s supposed to be a big world out there for him to want to save.
The Unforgivable Curses
I’m still baffled by this one. Most of the ending battle scenes were changed, and that’s fine. I can see where creating a room full of brains or timeturners would have been a pain. But the main event of the battle is Sirius’ death, and they screwed it up big time. I hope you know what I’m talking about, although some people might have missed it because it happened so fast. I’m referring to the last thing Sirius says to Harry – the last thing Harry got to hear from the one person he could consider family, the person he was risking his and his friends’ lives to save.
After all the build-up involved with them forming their relationship (in PoA), all that Harry risked for Sirius, all that Harry really needed from that relationship, to have a father figure who cared about him for who he was… for some reason, the screenwriter has Sirius call Harry “James”. It’s painful just to write it.
First of all, this was not in the book. Yes, Molly and others continue to remind Sirius that Harry is not his father, but while we see that Sirius misses James very much, we never really feel like he’s using Harry, or that he doesn’t truly love Harry. But with that one line I felt like they threw away his entire character, made him shallow and petty, more entertained by the battle than concerned about saving Harry. It was callous and insulting, and I don’t understand what the point was. Are they now going to invent some issue for Harry in the next film where he has flashbacks of the scene and of Sirius calling him by his father’s name? Instead of missing Sirius will he just be hurt and disappointed that he cared so much for someone who only saw him as a memory of someone else? Why drop a bomb like that with such huge emotional baggage tied to it if there’s never any resolution? Doesn’t Harry have enough crap to deal with without inventing a cheap shot like that? I can’t believe Rowling let that happen.
And finally, I want to know where the ending went. After five books, after facing Voldemort and almost dying, after watching his friends attacked and his godfather killed, Harry is supposed to return to Hogwarts full of sadness and anger and questions. He’s supposed to be so overwhelmed that he throws his rage around Dumbledore’s office, while Dumbledore quietly lets him, and then explains what it all means, what will have to happen, and what mistakes he’s made. It’s a powerful scene that goes a long way not only to fill in the blanks of the past books, but also to bring Harry and Dumbledore closer together in their mission.
Yeah, they didn’t really feel like including that in the movie. Just as well maybe, as Gambon probably would have screamed his way through it, but instead we get to see Harry pack some socks, sulk a bit, then get told, “Yep you have to kill him. Sorry. Oh, and I love you like a son… blah blah blah.” The scene was brief, dry, mechanical, and it ripped the heart and soul out of the whole series.
Damn, I started writing this an hour ago and really only meant to make a quick bullet list of pros and cons, but I think it’s been cathartic to let it all out. Plus, work is slow today.
I still haven’t read many reviews of the film, but the few I did see I agreed with. One recurring thought I’ve seen is that it would have been nice, if they could have worked out the logistics, to have had the same director for all the films. It would have been a huge commitment, but it would have added a lot in terms of continuity with the look and feel of the films.
Critic Mary F. Pols said it best, “Of course it’s tricky, handing off the baton between directors and directors of photography in what will eventually be a seven-movie long series. We certainly want fresh energy brought to each film, but at the same time, there needs to be a continuity beyond just the actors and the setting. Reading Rowling’s books, we’re not thinking, oh, now this one should feel like a David Lynch film while that earlier one was really a family picture. On the page, they are all part of the universe of Harry Potter, a universe we’ve all been rather pleased with, apparently. But on the screen, the stories, now in their fourth set of hands, feel uncomfortably fractured. Thank heavens for books.”
I’ll second that.