Monday, July 23, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Back to 'Deathly Hallows' in a post or two, meanwhile, time for a film review.

The director of 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' faced the unenviable task of condensing a massive book into a watchable film. At the same time given the almost unremitting grimness of the book, there was a need to keep at least a bit of humour, to make sure that the seam of humour in JK Rowlings juxtaposition of a wizards world right next to 'normal' society kept being mined.

In fact, the main problem in the film is that there are too many key characters. The cast list is now such a roll call of top drawer British actors, with new ones being added every film (Helena Bonham Carter and Imelda Staunton in this one, among others), that it's hard to give them all screen time. Characters such as Robbie Coltranes Hagrid, or Alan Rickmans fantastic Severus Snape, only get a couple of minutes each, sometimes in chapters which don't seem to move the plot forward much.

The biggest amount of screen time goes to the loathsome Dolores Umbridge, wonderfully played by Staunton, as a sadistic and legalistic teacher, imposed by the Ministry of Magic to bring Hogwarts into line. Otherwise, it's mainly about the children, and the good news is that they act well, and we're spared some of the more sentimental bits which spoiled the previous film. Stand out is the ethereal Luna Lovegood, a great bit of casting and playing.

The plot itself - if you don't already know it: Harry has seen the evil Voldemorts return (at the end of the last film) but nobody else has, so he spends most of the film trying to persuade a sceptical school/wizarding world that V is alive and active. At the same time he starts seeing into V's mind, but his mentor, Dumbledore, seems to be avoiding him. The first chink of light is the formation of 'Dumbledores Army', a group of students who recruit Harry as their teacher in Defense against the Dark Arts, as the school curriculum has been changed so that they no longer learn anything of practical value. Some of the Army accompany Harry on his main mission in the book - to find and save his godfather Sirius in the depths of the Ministry of Magic. Cue battles, lots of stuff breaking, a big showdown between Voldemort and Dumbledore, and the death of Harry's last family member, Sirius.

The films, as everyone says, have been getting progressively 'darker'. They are no longer stories about children playing and the wonder of discovery, tainted by the shadow of darker things. The absence of any Quidditch games is symptomatic of the transition to High School angst, and the discovery of the harshness of the adult world. Playtime is over. Harry, having seen death, now has new insights, but also new burdens. The student who seems to offer most understanding is Luna, who's also witnessed death - 'we comfort others with the comfort we ourselves have recieved'. He also feels betrayed by the adults: Dumbledore seems not to care, Hagrid is absent without explanation, and Umbridge seems to delight in making him suffer for 'lying' even though he's telling the truth.

One question the film raises is: how much truth can we bear to hear? Dumbledore claims he is trying to shield Harry, and Harry's insights into V's mind, through which he saves a life, eventually put him and his friends in great danger. As Umbridge is being taken off to her come-uppance by the centaurs, she calls to Harry 'tell them I mean no harm', and he responds, in the words of the lines she has made him write (into his own skin) 'I must not tell lies'.

How much a young person can be burdened with, and how much they need to be trusted, is a fine line which is walked all the way through the Potter series. In our own society, it's a big issue too: our young people are peppered with war, violence, pornography, messages about their bodies and appearance, the full weight of adult capitalist society bearing down on them - how do we support their struggle to tell the truth, to have integrity, to be loyal to friends, to take risks out of the courageous pursuit of great goods rather than simply out of boredom.

2 more films to go, though how they're going to make Deathly Hallows into anything less than a 4 hour epic I have no idea.....

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