****/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B+
starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter
screenplay by Michael Goldenberg, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling
directed by David Yates
by Walter Chaw It's a blasted earth, this green that holds Hogwarts now, and during a scene where our hero wizard is being tortured into forgetfulness for his own good, director David Yates cues a blanket of forgetful snow to fall. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (hereafter Harry Potter 5) is, likes its title suggests, a startling return to form for the series after Alfonso Cuarón's exceptional Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was followed by the insipid contribution of rom-com specialist Mike Newell. Gratifyingly complex and deliciously Freudian, a moment where Harry loses the last of his family--mirroring a moment in the third film where, on the banks of a lake, he almost loses himself--is preceded by an identical progression from the third film in which he's mistaken for his own father. Alas this time, Harry's not able to affect positive change in the guise of his dad; it's the boy becoming the man, frustrated and folded into a world of dread and doom. As drawn in the film, Potter's universe is like Potter's Field, a place where strangers and orphans are buried on the eve of war and a child's unavoidable matriculation into corruption. Harry Potter 5 is dark as pitch: unsettling, unsettled, unresolved, and utterly remarkable.
I can't judge whether neophytes would enjoy the film without having seen the others--there doesn't seem much in the development of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), or Hermione (Emma Watson) beyond that Harry, after witnessing a murder in the previous instalment, is consumed with impotent rage throughout the first half of the picture--but the story is so steeped in primate logic (sex, blood, vengeance, shame) that a primer is likely unnecessary. Issues of class and race resurface here as they tend to do when the Harry Potter series is at its best, and Harry's much-publicized first kiss with love interest Cho (Katie Leung) is resolved fascinatingly with betrayal and unresolved vindication. But the highlight of the piece finds Harry, in a fit of pique, turning the tables on an inquisitive Snape (Alan Rickman) and discovering that his father as a young man (Robbie Jarvis) was Snape's bully. It's an amazing moment, astonishing in its coldness and complexity--this robbing of a child's illusions of his father existing comfortably shoulder-to-shoulder with an unflagging love of that parent, sobered but un-tempered by the baseness of the father's humanity. There's religion in that revelation--a compassionate religion at that, the father/martyr's transformation into the body of a man making his sacrifice not less but greater. I can't count a lot of instances where I've been more gratified by a children's wonderland, because while Harry Potter 5 tackles a boy's reverence for his father with nonpareil transparency, it makes time to address unjust administrations, the power of an unfriendly press, and the ills of a judicial system hijacked by politics and fast fashion.
The children return centre-stage for this one, freed of the actor's workshop tips imposed on them by Newell. They have an earnestness about them that plays out like what it is (children pretending to be big), but I don't know that children asked to be big would act any differently. Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton stand out as the two duelling headmasters of Hogwarts School, at which Harry and his friends assemble a small band of students to rail against a blinkered educational system modeled, one stretches, on the Kansas School Board's recommended curriculum. Their aim is to prepare for the coming conflagration against arch big-bad Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), though their crowning triumph is as a metaphor for how ill-served are our children by a steady diet of pabulum, platitude, and Pollyannaism. In that respect, Harry Potter 5 is its own best example, providing skies that are overcast and villains who emerge, sometimes literally, from the silt in the picture's midnight atmosphere. The picture also boasts a herd of marauding centaurs, riled from the gerrymandering of their territory (Harry Potter 5 with environmental concerns? You bet); a portrait of arrested childhood in a little boy lost left to fend for itself in a dark wood; and, of course, that enduring image of evil in Staunton's pink, Jackie-O suited headmistress, forcing her charges to cut words of repentance into their flesh while ensconced in a Heritage USA-hell forge of animated kitten collector's plates.
The picture is wicked in its satire but not without purpose. It's that rarity of a special effects spectacular that integrates its phantasms into the mundane of the characters' existences, and when it does show off, as in a scene where the students summon their protective avatars, there's real wonder to it. A film that deserves to be called a fairytale (as the third entry did) for all its darkness and useful enchantment, it fulfills its mandate to be exciting in beautifully-crafted set-pieces in a warehouse of glass globes and a circular arena around a whispering portal where wizards mad and divine engage in alien tactical warfare. I like that it ends on a field of sand for its tactile contemporary link to our own imbroglio; and I like that at the end of it, there's a sense inescapable that if Harry should die fighting his shadow, it's because he didn't learn his lessons of control and tolerance well enough from the people he saw as enemy and the situations he perceived as perilous. Harry Potter 5 is the series' The Empire Strikes Back: the good guys get the tar beaten out of them and learn not only that they're a mirror's thickness from being the bad guys, but also that the fathers they're destined to become are not always the heroes of their stories. A film about a lot of things, it draws its power from the Gordian complexity of crafting a legacy through the belief--when every other system and bedrock is filthy with rot and cynicism--in the ability to forget. Originally published: July 11, 2007.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a stunner on Blu-ray. The supremely clear 2.40:1, 1080p transfer brings to mind an answer print projected under ideal circumstances, though some shots in the final third of the film are subtly out of register, perhaps betraying the dual-strip 3-D process in which the climax was shot for IMAX exhibition. (For what it's worth, the image has a depth in HiDef that would almost make preserving the 3-D aspect redundant, although it'd be neat to see them try.) Because of this artifact, the presentation doesn't quite measure up to that of another summer juggernaut, Spider-Man 3, but your mileage may vary based on Harry Potter 5's much broader (almost edibly so) palette. The accompanying 5.1 audio--in PCM uncompressed and Dolby Digital (640 kbps) flavours--is shockingly dynamic, given the reputation these movies have for sounding kind of flat on SD DVD. I can only speak for the DD option, which is mighty impressive in and of itself; I can't remember the last time rear-channel ambiance sounded this detailed. The subwoofer, meanwhile, dips to scary lows guaranteed to drive toddlers out of the room screaming.
As for extras, this BD contains a wealth of next-gen-exclusive "focus points" you can access either individually or via a 'white-rabbit' feature, whereby a gold disc icon encourages a jump to a relevant making-of segment at various intervals throughout the movie proper. There are 28 featurettes in all totalling 64 minutes (I think the longest one clocks in at about four minutes), and topically they run the gamut from the awesome production design of the Ministry of Magic to Harry and Cho's kiss beneath the mistletoe. Most manage to impart an impressive amount of information in a relatively short space; among other things, I learned weird British terms like "corpsing" (giggle fits) and that a surprising amount of the effects work was done in England. (I'm not sure why that's surprising, it simply is.) Also, offscreen, Katie Leung has the worst posture this side of Rory Gilmore.
Unless you're a superfan, the remaining supplements will seem fairly disposable. "The Hidden Secrets of Harry Potter" (44 mins.) is a glorified infomercial for Harry Potter 5, while "Trailing Tonks" (19 mins.), er, trails Selma Blair-ian actress Natalia Tena (a.k.a. Nymphadora Tonks) as she goes from set department to set department bothering production personnel, ostensibly for our educational benefit. The much-touted "The Magic of Editing" is a painfully basic and inflexible virtual editing studio nevertheless preceded by an excellent 5-minute intro/primer from director David Yates and his long-time cutter Mark Day. Finally, the 10-minute "Deleted Scenes" block is basically an unwatchable outtake of Emma Thompson hamming it up followed by other, less interminable trims. Note that all of this bonus content is in glorious HD--such is not the case with the concurrent HD-DVD release, an also-ran format so inadequate that all of the special features had to be downconverted to 480i just to fit on one disc. Originally published: December 10, 2007.