I have a few issues with the new “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” film but even if you have no interest in this world, it’s worth seeing for one reason: Imelda Staunton. The actress plays Dolores Umbridge, Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic, Cornelius Fudge. Staunton’s sickly sweet, well-coiffed, pretty-in-pink cheerfulness belies her vicious cruelty, party loyalty, and thirst for power. As far as I’m concerned, Staunton’s character, looking like a nice middle-aged schoolmarm, is more sly and dangerous than the Dark Lord himself, Mr. Voldemort. Staunton owns this movie, the fifth in the series, and is so perfectly cast that I have a hard time believing that J.K. Rowling didn’t have her in mind when she thought up the character. Dolores Umbridge is the perfect stand-in for Margaret Spellings, the current U.S. Secretary of Education under George W. Bush. The film’s most interesting subplot, and the only one that had me fully engaged, involves the total subjugation of Hogwarts School and its slow descent towards a curriculum that is based on standardized testing and the suppression of original thought. Umbridge insists on drilling the Hogwarts' students in boring abstractions instead of allowing them to practice real magic, the same way some of our government policies emphasize drill-and-kill instruction over experiential hands-on learning. Whether intentional or not, the film is a crushing indictment of Bush’s reviled but still in place No Child Left Behind Act.
I’m not a Harry Potter fanatic by any means and have never even read the books, but I always look forward to taking my daughter (who is rereading all six books right now and has pre-ordered the seventh) to the new film during its opening weekend. We went, as always, to the magnificent Grauman’s Chinese Theatre which, unlike other Potter opening days, was not even close to being sold out. I don’t think that’s an indication of the series’ declining popularity but rather a side effect of opening the movie in a trillion theatres instead of only a select few. I guess they make more money that way but it seems like a big mistake. There was always something very exciting about fighting to get into a packed movie house on opening day as opposed to having tons of seats available at every theatre chain in town.
Because I’m only a peripheral visitor to Potter’s world, be grateful that I’m unable to compare the films to the books ad nauseam or blather on about the intricacies of life at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I enjoyed the new film but I think that it is the least “stand alone” of the bunch. Newcomers to the series would be totally lost but I guess at this point there aren’t all that many newcomers. I’m grateful that they don’t hit us with endless exposition and review, but I think they could have come up with some graceful ways to bring people up to speed and acknowledge those of us who have not been part of J.K. Rowling’s publishing juggernaut. But despite my lack of Potter street cred, I am a huge fan of the unprecedented roster of talent these films employ, seemingly every actor of note in the United Kingdom.
The only frustration for me, and it’s a big one, is that depending on the plot points from Rowling’s massive tomes and how much the current director can squeeze into two and a half hours, many of these amazing actors have such abbreviated roles that their appearances start to feel like those dumb cameos in the star-studded films of yesteryear like “Around the World in 80 Days” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” It is crazy to have such outrageously talented actors as Maggie Smith (as Minerva McGonagall) and Emma Thompson (as Sybill Trelawney) appear on screen for so short a time. They are great in their tiny parts but it’s a tantalizing taste of honey that always makes me want to run straight to my Netflix queue and plop myself down in front of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” or “Sense and Sensibility” to see them sink their teeth into some meaty roles. I only hope that these two dames have more to do in the sixth and seventh films.
Other excellent actors make brief but welcomed appearances. Jason Isaacs is always good as the creepy white-haired Lucius Malfoy and here he seems on the path towards true evil. Gary Oldman is a treat as Sirius Black and I enjoy Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid. I’m less impressed by Ralph Fiennes’ noseless Lord Voldemort but that’s probably because You-Know-Who works better as a concept than a flesh-and-blood person and in this story we’re simply gearing up for the eventual showdown between Harry Potter and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. I only hope that encounter doesn’t mirror the Big Reveal between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader—as I watched this film I had the sinking feeling that Voldemort and Harry might be more connected than we thought. Julie Walters is always a breath of fresh air as Ron Weasley’s harried mother, and Michael Gambon remains an excellent replacement for the late Richard Harris’ Headmaster Dumbledore. Gambon defends the persecuted Emma Thompson in this film and I was thrilled to read recently that the two of them are playing Lord and Lady Marchmain in a remake of “Brideshead Revisited” that is filming this summer.
New to the Harry Potter canvas is a delightfully over-the-top Helena Bonham Carter as the insane witch Bellatrix Lestrange, a cousin of Sirius Black, who long ago tortured Neville Longbottom’s parents and taunts him about it in this film. I think Carter has been hanging around with boyfriend Tim Burton for so long that she’s started to look like a character from one of his films, especially here as the Goth-like Lestrange. In her Merchant Ivory days, Helena Bonham Carter starred with both Maggie Smith and Emma Thompson, always playing the porcelain-skinned demure English lass, but lately she seems determined to shock audiences with her larger-than-life freak show roles. In her next film she plays another murderess, Mrs. Lovett, in the long awaited movie version of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” starring Johnny Depp as the title character and directed by Burton. I'm in!
Yikes, I’ve already gone on far longer than I planned and I haven’t even mentioned the young cast. The three leads are growing up fast, and for all the world to see, God love them. By now those photos of Harry Potter in all his glory have been scattered to every corner of the Internet thanks to Daniel Radcliffe’s au naturel appearance last spring in a London production of “Equus.” Of the three, Radcliffe has probably changed the most since the series began, and in this film he really gets to act, even though his brooding misery seems more of a placeholder for action yet to come. Sadly, Harry’s heralded First Kiss with love interest Cho Chang (Katie Leung) is an unholy bore and I hope he dumps Chang and goes after Hermione or the captivating new “I see dead horses” crazy girl, Luna Lovegood (played by Evanna Lynch). I’ve always liked Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, and they show a whole new maturity here, but they are woefully underused. Ron’s rebellious twin brothers Fred and George (James and Oliver Phelps) get a lot of screen time in this story and provide some much needed comic relief from the dour events. I also like liked Bonnie Wright as Ginny, the youngest Weasley, who at 16 is really coming into her own.
With hormones raging among the younger Potter cast, I thought there’d be more adolescent sexual tension in the film, but all we get is that tepid kiss between Harry and Cho. I wonder if Rowling ever considered making any of the characters gay—that would have been really interesting. My vote would have been for either Hermione or Luna to discover their homosexual leanings, or perhaps Draco Malfoy or one of the Weasleys. Of course that would have made Rowling’s books even more controversial than they already are in some circles.
Oy, for someone who claims not to be obsessed with this world, I’m sounding like a true Harry Potter nerd, aren’t I? I was never that into those long and complicated Quidditch matches in the other four films but I found myself missing the game in this one, there was such a lack of regular daily school life experiences. But I don’t mean to sound too negative, the film is a must-see despite its flaws. Besides Imelda Staunton’s chilling performance, my other favorite part of the film is a brief moment when Harry is able to peek into the mind of his sometimes nemesis, Professor Severus Snape (wonderfully played, as always, by Alan Rickman), and learns something about his revered late father, James Potter, that is quite surprising and shakes things up for him even though this revelation is not addressed in the rest of the film. A few days ago I would’ve said that I didn’t give a snidget’s ass about what happens to these characters and now I’m counting the days until the release of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” in November 2008. And that, my friends and muggles, is the marketing genius of the Harry Potter empire.