Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

After four bad to mediocre outings, the Harry Potter series gets a much needed change in style, direction and presentation. David Yates takes on the role of director for the rest of the franchise, teasing out the material for all its worth, while also making films that are strong in their own rights. Writer Michael Goldenberg also gives Steve Kloves a much needed break from adapting the books to the screen, opting for a much more trim and economical adaptation, and cinematographer Slawomir Idziak infuses the film with a potent mood and visual allure.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix takes one of the worst books in the series and turns it into one of the best films in the franchise. The film finds a way to unify story, characters and world into a cohesive film, each element feeding the others in a very direct and immediate way. For instance, when Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) discovers the existence of Thestrals, lanky flying horses that can only be seen be characters who have witnessed death, it’s not simply one of those world-building moments, but an opportunity to introduce a new character, Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch).

This is the first film where a good deal of the story takes place outside of Hogwarts, which allows the film to expand the world as the plot develops. This greater sense of the world that allows the film to build a fantastic political thriller as Harry and Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) insists that Lord Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned and threatens the wizard world, while Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), the Minister of Magic, insists that it’s a thinly veiled attempt by Dumbledore to gain power through fear.

What Fudge and the ministry fail to see is their own hypocrisy as they use the people’s fear of Dumbledore to gain their own power at Hogwarts. To that end, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Stauton) is sent by the ministry to “keep an eye” on Hogwarts, which quickly turns into a full out power grab as she begins to enforce strict rules on the student body. Imelda Staunton gives one of the finest performances of the entire series, her petite form, bubbly laugh and perpetually chipper attitude are a translucent ruse for the barbaric and brutal woman underneath.

All these elements slowly build to the climax of the picture, which ends up being a masterfully paced and finely tuned series of action sequences. If the Quiddich matches of previous films or the setpieces of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire impressed audiences, this will overwhelm them with the sense of scale coupled with some of the most visually compelling displays of visuals the series has seen.

This last act builds to what is possibly the most epic and creative sequence of the entire film as two of the great wizards battle it out. While it could simply have been a flash of sparks back and forth, the fight evolves to show these two exploit their environment and the physical properties of things around them in creative and visually creative ways. It’s the kind of action that demands to be seen on as big a screen as possible.

An essential element to this entire final act is the cinematography of Slawomir Idziak which blue and green hues helps create action that is visually fluid and easy on the eyes, but also helps him punctuate moments with an edge of mystery and otherworldliness. His work establishes a mood that even surpasses the palpable dread of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, because it’s more than just frightening the audience, it’s simultaneously soothing and alarming, creating a dissonance that unsettles the audience.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the most versatile of the film. It’s a film with as much political maturity as the latest topical thriller and emotional weight as the award winning drama. And it rivals the likes of The Bourne Ultimatum and The Dark Knight as the best action film of the decade. But, more important than all that, it shows that the Harry Potter franchise can be more than just entertaining fantasy flicks, they can be damn good films.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing