Looking back at Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix

David Yates takes over the director's chair, as Mark Harrison looks back at Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix...

Warning: this article contains spoilers for the film, if you haven’t seen it yet.

JK Rowling followed The Goblet Of Fire with Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, an even longer book. It’s by far the longest of the series at hundred and thirty-four pages, and in my personal opinion, it’s also the weakest. Having eschewed, up to this point, the route of adapting one book into multiple films, this was where the film series had to get creative.

After Mike Newell declined to direct, Warner Bros. began one last hunt for a new director. The search included Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding), Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie) and Matthew Vaughn (who would go on to direct Stardust instead). At one point, it was even rumoured that M. Night Shyamalan had been offered the reins, with the proviso that he would script the film too.

Eventually, producer David Heyman chose TV director, David Yates. The subject matter of Rowling’s novel seemed to coincide with Yates’ strengths, judging by his work on Paul Abbott’s State Of Play, a series about the entanglements of journalism and the corruption of government. Heyman wanted a more gritty approach to this more serious outing.

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Also absent from this instalment is the series’ stalwart screenwriter, Steve Kloves. Although he returned to pen the three remaining films, he had other commitments at the time this one was being made. Michael Goldenberg (2003’s Peter Pan) stepped into the breach, and he and Yates began the mammoth task of paring down the sprawling narrative.

The film begins with business as usual, in a way. Harry is miserable in Little Whinging, grieving over Cedric Diggory’s untimely death a few weeks previously. The monotony is unpleasantly shattered by a pair of Dementors, who attack him and his cousin, Dudley Dursley. Harry is subsequently expelled from Hogwarts for protecting Dudley, having used magic in front of a Muggle to do so.

Dumbledore quickly gets this decision overturned in a court of wizarding law, but it becomes apparent that the Ministry of Magic is smearing Harry and his headmaster over their insistence that Voldemort has returned. Indeed, Minister Cornelius Fudge is more paranoid about Dumbledore working against him, than about the Dark Lord’s rise to power.

Fudge installs his toady, Dolores Umbridge, at Hogwarts as a Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher, who outlaws the use of practical spells and duelling. While Voldemort increases his power and mounts an attempt to steal a new weapon, Harry tries to alert his fellow students and arm them against the future, by setting up secret lessons and teaching them how to fight back.

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Although Voldemort and the Death Eaters loom throughout, the actual antagonists in The Order Of The Phoenix are all in government, obfuscating the way forward by their denial and fear. Robert Hardy, who has held a genial supporting role as Fudge for the last few films, now becomes more obstinate and conservative, afraid to admit that the world might be on the brink of war.

But it’s newcomer Imelda Staunton who really leads the charge, as Umbridge. “Progress,” Staunton simpers, “for the sake of progress, must be prohibited.” It begins with this brand of compassionate conservatism, before she gets behind closed doors and tells Harry that he knows he deserves to be punished. Her performance is fantastic, milking the banality of evil for all its worth and making for one of the Potter series’ more skin-crawling villains.

Harry’s reaction to this political repression is part of his main emotional journey in The Order Of The Phoenix. Goldenberg and Yates prune away most of the stuff that doesn’t connect to this journey, making for the second shortest running time of all the films. And yet, the overwhelming impression of watching it is that it’s quite extraordinarily faithful, if less longwinded than before.

A savvy screenwriter might have, once again, excised the Dursleys and got straight into the political intrigue of the piece, but Goldenberg somehow finds a way to hit every base, as far as the important events of the book go, in the most concise way possible.

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It’s a deceptively simple approach, with a lot more of the film’s dialogue being recognisable straight from the book than in Kloves’ scripts. At the same time, however, Goldenberg is very creative with his adaptation, unafraid to generate some new scenes from emotional beats that were delivered incrementally on the page, and rearrange the chronology of the story a little.

Of his adaptation process, Goldenberg told Wizard Universe in 2007, “You hate to lose anything, because it’s all great. But anything that we did lose, we tried to find a way to at least tip our hats or find another way of showing it. So even where certain sequences or subplots may not literally be in the movie, I think they’re there in spirit.”

Yates’ tenure, which lasts until the end of the series, is often criticised by Harry Potter fans for being rampantly unfaithful. I’ve said before, and will say again, some Harry Potter fans don’t know they’re born when it comes to this claim. They’d probably find some perspective if they watched Queen Of The Damned, or Catwoman, or any videogame movie ever made.

It’s really stunning how the film covers all of the source material’s salient points and still has a relatively breakneck pace. It even finds time to flesh out certain regular characters. Sirius Black’s family history, or at least the parts of it that are important to him as a character, makes it into the film and gives a good opportunity for Gary Oldman and Daniel Radcliffe to develop their chemistry before its tragic ending.

Alan Rickman, after appearing for approximately thirty seconds in the previous instalment, had never been given more to do before this point. Snape, in trying to teach Harry to defend his mind from Voldemort, gets some great scenes, and we learn part of the reason for his beef with Harry’s father. It hints at the later complexities of the character, and Rickman brings his A game as always.

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The arrival of Yates marks a rapid acceleration to the gradually improving talents of the young cast too. Particularly, Daniel Radcliffe has spoken of his admiration for Yates’ rapport with actors, telling Entertainment Weekly in 2006, “I don’t think there’s been a moment on set this time where I’ve walked away after a scene and thought I didn’t give it my all.”

Rupert Grint and Emma Watson don’t get to show off for reasons of not having an awful lot to do in this film. The subplot with Harry’s teaching group, dubbed Dumbledore’s Army in a rebellious affront to the Ministry’s paranoia, includes much more of the younger cast. Matthew Lewis’ hapless Neville Longbottom gets some much needed embellishment, and Katie Leung’s return as Harry’s crush, Cho Chang, figures in the film’s further baby steps towards teen romance.

The consequence is that the usual trio of leads are joined on their dangerous climactic mission by three more Hogwarts students (the acceptance of Neville brings Ron’s sister, Ginny, and Cloud Cuckoo Lander, Luna Lovegood, into danger with them too). In a bold contrast, all of their practice is moot when pitted against a bunch of grown Death Eaters, who have no compunctions about wailing on teenagers.

Jason Isaacs makes an unctuous return as Lucius Malfoy, colluding with Fudge for most of the film, while also actively serving his reborn master. But the big news at the end of this one is probably the introduction of Bellatrix Lestrange, played by Helena Bonham Carter. In ten minutes of screen time, she’s revealed to have tortured Neville’s parents to insanity, and then she murders Sirius. It’s one of those instant villain-making turns, which Ralph Fiennes pulled off so well last time around.

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One of Yates’ most celebrated contributions to the series has been the visual style of duelling he introduced in this film. The duelling between the Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix is a cacophony of CGI, practical effects and Paul Harris’ choreography. It’s all of this together that finally makes fighting with magic wands such an arresting spectacle.

This film has recently made the news when Warner Bros declared it had lost $167m, despite being the twelfth highest grossing movie of all time in cinemas alone. Having only signed the cast for the first four films, the budget was inflated by having to renegotiate contracts and salaries for the remaining films, but the declaration of loss is still ridiculous.

I’m sure more can be made of Hollywood’s unconscionable economics elsewhere, but it remains to say that David Yates immediately proved his handle on the series with Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix. To fans annoyed at his creative licence, he freely admitted that his original cut of the film was three hours long, and he willingly left forty-five minutes on the cutting room floor.

Although The Prisoner Of Azkaban is the film closest in tone to the book on which it is based, The Order Of The Phoenix goes one better, by actually superseding the novel. Rowling’s over-long fifth instalment could have used a good edit before publication, and I think, by her encouragement of Goldenberg’s artistic licence with the adaptation, she had realised that too.

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If Potter-sceptics didn’t get the fuss about Alfonso Cuarón’s effort, David Yates gives the series its second wind. The performances are better, the story flows more easily, and the political dimension shows that the series is growing up. And happily, this is a director who doesn’t mistake darkness of tone for turning off the lights.

Crucially, Yates omits none of the most important plot particulars and still delivers a film that’s only just over two hours long.  The running time would creep upwards again with the return of Steve Kloves for the sixth outing, The Half-Blood Prince, but the quality remains consistent throughout Yates’ run.

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See more of our Looking Back articles here.