Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: our second review

It's Simon's turn to get his teeth into the boy/man-hybrid wizard, as he reviews Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix. As usual, spoilers lie within...

Imelda Staunton in the Harry Potter. Brilliant...

My theory behind Harry Potter movies is this: they’re becoming like Bond films.

007 movies rotate their directors regularly, giving the fella behind the camera around half the film to make his mark (and I’m not being sexist here: find me a female director of either franchise), before the stunt coordinators/effects people kick in and pretty much take over the back end of it.

Harry Potter’s no doubt personal decision – not always by choice – to rotate the director’s chair has already paid dividends, with Alfonso Cuaron’s take on Harry Potter & The Prisoner Of Azkaban being widely regarded as quite dark and quite unsettling before drifting off into a mix of Back To The Future II and puberty. Still, it landed him the Children Of Men gig.

David Yates, the man who helmed the BBC’s State Of Play miniseries a few years back and has a primarily TV background, is the man in charge this time, and you have to say he’s made a good fist of it.

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Granted, he’s got the edgier material to work with – or as edgy as Harry Potter gets, anyway – but he’s clearly had a hoot with the darkness and general feeling of melancholy that underpins large sections of Harry Potter & The Order Of The Phoenix.

He’s also, much to his credit, a fan of cutting out the bulk of the chaff, dispensing of lots of plot hokum through fast-moving newspaper headlines that seem to easily dispense with dozens of pages of the book in seconds. As someone who’s not read a single one of the Potter tomes, this is a blessing: so reverential have some of the previous directors been, you wonder why they didn’t just scroll the text of the various chapters alongside the action.

But back to the film: Yates does a smashing job. Clearly having lots of fun with the sheer scale offered to him, his camera gamely swoops all over Hogwarts, bring a real sense that it’s just, well, big. He’s also served, for the most part, by a great cast.

Walking away with the film is Imelda Staunton. I’ve no idea what her character was called, but just couldn’t help but love her dry, smiling nastiness. Splendid stuff, and further proof that Staunton is a national treasure. Cast her in Grange Hill, she’d shake that up, too.

Alan Rickman’s a national treasure too, of course, who never seems to get enough to do in these films. He is, as usual, first class (even if I keep wanting to do a Hans Gruber “Ho ho ho”). Same too for Dame Maggie Smith (except for the Hans Gruber bit, obviously).

On top of that lot, Emma Thompson briefly pops back in, Michael Gambon continues to remind us just how much we miss Richard Harris, the once mildly-nasty Draco Malfoy continues to be pissed away, and it’s always grand to see Gary Oldman and David Thewlis. In anything, really.

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On the baddies’ side, Helena Bonham Carter makes a good fist of doing much with not a lot of material (although her day will come in this franchise), while the slow build up to Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort is really well done. The ultimate battle is, as usual, an anticlimax, not least because this film is effectively a prolonged trailer for the next chapter. The big battle is yet to come, and everyone knows it.

The acting problems though lie with the regulars. Back when they were much younger, you’d cut the trio of Daniel Radcliffe, Emily Watson and Rupert Grint a bit of slack. Watson is the one now who can hold the screen reasonably well, while Grint gets to pull his face and generally not do too much here.

So it’s up to Radcliffe to hold together the darker material, and he does a muddled job. He’s far more believable in the first half of the film, which you suspect was filmed last, then when it comes to the crunch. And given that this was filmed, I suspect, before he took a year of acting lessons to romp around naked on a stage with a horse, it might be that this chapter came a little too early for him. He’s certainly going to have to raise his game for the last two films.

But, still, Harry Potter & The Order Of The Phoenix is a solid, enjoyable blockbuster, with only one or two mis-steps (clue: silly giants do not make good plot devices to dig yourself out of the shit). What’s more, with news that Yates is on board to direct film six, due Christmas 2008 (surprising, given that original director Chris Columbus and Azkaban’s Cuaron had expressed an interest), the franchise has far more left in its pot than you’d expect, considering it’s five films in. Because this latest film is as good as anything they’ve done with the series yet.

Blimey.