Retrospective: Harry Potter – Part 3

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

When one looks at the massive tome that is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, one must sift through 870 pages of mystery, psychological terror, political intrigue, and adolescence at its most violent. As such, the fifth novel in the Harry Potter saga has perhaps been the most divisive amongst the readers of the series. Where the preceding books placed their focus on the magic and adding to Harry’s character arc, J.K. Rowling took a bold move and allowed her world to travel in fascinating new directions. She risked Harry’s genuine likability by making him constantly moody, even violently angry at times. Such is the nature of adolescence, but Harry is the better for it. The audience has been constantly reminded of Harry’s capacity for good, but what of his capacity for evil? It was with Order of the Phoenix that Harry truly became a three dimensional character, the flawed human being he deserves to be. But more than just deepening her protagonist, Rowling transcended the critical magical core of her books, and created a plot that plays out much more like a political and psychological thriller than a book about kids learning magic and fighting the forces of evil.  This is why I have held Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in the highest regard of Rowling’s novels, and perhaps I was predisposed to like its cinematic treatment as well. Indeed, despite its severe tightening of the plot, Order of the Phoenix is among the stronger Harry Potter films, carrying across all of Rowling’s themes and deepening ideas smoothly to celluloid.

With the fifth film, the series underwent its final directorial change and settled upon David Yates, a little known British director whose previous work had been centered in television. Despite his relative lack of experience with big budget material, Yates turned out to be a solid choice for finishing out the rest of the Harry Potter series, and made significant contributions to a franchise that could have easily settled into both visual and narrative formula. The strongest of these contributions was his insistence on grounding the series in a sense of realism. Alfonso Cuaron had already established this in Prisoner of Azkaban by putting his cast in casual clothes and giving the world of Hogwarts aged and worn down feel, but that film still had a visual panache that reinforced the magical aspects of that world. Under the eyes of Yates, there is still occasional room for visual splendor, but more than anything he made clear the symbiosis of the worlds of wizardry and muggles.

The fact that both worlds had direct and indirect effects on each other became an important theme following the return of Voldemort in the series, and the visuals in Order of the Phoenix support this. Take the early scene in which Harry and Dudley are attacked by dementors in the underpass. Not only is this an unexpected twist early in the narrative, but the shots compositions themselves and the sickly yellows and greens illuminating the underpass add to the grim realism of the scene, and the resulting visuals feel less like Harry Potter and more like David Fincher.

This early jolt of unforeseen terror not only supplies an aura of foreboding to the rest of the film, but also reinforces the theme of inter connectivity between the muggles and the wizarding worlds. What really sells the realism in Yates’ films is that it never feels self conscious in its style. Granted, Yates implements great visual moments when they’re necessary, such as the fantastical, if condensed, battle in the Department of Mysteries. However, Yates’ realism does not need to be defined by hand held camera movement or an overly gritty color palette, as most filmmakers might resort to. Rather, it is the subject’s relationship to the environment that defines realism in Harry Potter. Although Yates makes this abundantly apparent in his later films, it remains well established in Order of the Phoenix.

Outside of the visual strengths of Order of the Phoenix, I would be amiss if I did not address perhaps one of the best supporting performances in the entire series with Imelda Staunton as the poisonously petite Dolores Umbridge. As Umbridge, Staunton portrays extraordinary elegance and minutiae concealed beneath a simmering tyrannical core. As in Rowling’s prose, Umbridge manages to take control of Hogwarts, and under her rule, impose a dictatorship as overseen by the Ministry of Magic. This is the first time politics truly come into play in the overall narrative, and add to Yates’ realistic vision. The conflicts that Harry and his friends begin to deal with are suddenly imbued with a real world relevance, and add a great deal of depth beyond individual conflict. It becomes apparent in Order of the Phoenix that Harry’s struggles are affecting not only his own psyche, but society as well. This thematic expansion is but one of the many reasons why the fifth film works so well, for the dedication of giving a sense of both visual and narrative truth to the series.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince commences with a wordless opening scene which actually occurs during one of the closing moments of Order of the Phoenix. As a deeply melancholy young man is surrounded by reporters following a devastating battle, the elder sage beside him wraps his arm around him protectively. It’s a subtle scene that lasts less than a minute, but it encapsulates the important, archetypal dynamic of mentor and learner that serves as the critical core to the sixth film in J.K. Rowling’s saga. Half-Blood Prince takes great lengths to set itself apart from its thematically darker predecessor, and although it proves to easily be the most humorous film, the dependence on the laughs comes at the expense of the story. As I had mentioned previously, I don’t have much of a problem with deviation from the source material when it comes to adaptations, but in this case, the sixth book had a great deal of exposition which would become essential for the finale. In the film, the exposition is treated almost like an afterthought. But I digress, despite the sacrifices made to the story, Half-Blood Prince remains an elegantly made film, and that opening scene is among the best in the entire saga.

What allows this Potter to stand out visually is the exceptional photography, and what has aided the series significantly is the alternation in cinematographers with nearly every picture. Half-Blood Prince in this case exhibits the most defined look out of all the films thanks to the exceptional efforts of Bruno Delbonnel. A key collaborator with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet on such visually splendid pictures as Amelie, Delbonnel’s photography is best characterized by its sumptuous colors. As with his French films, Delbonnel quite literally color codes each scene to reflect that scene’s tone and atmosphere. This is not simply restricted to the obviously desaturated flashback scenes, but to all of the present day scenes as well. As evidenced above, Dumbledore’s office is dominantly but not overpoweringly golden, standing as the last remaining safe refuge for Harry at this point of the story, as well as hinting at the twilight of Dumbledore’s own life. In contrast, Harry’s mission with Dumbledore in the third act is as dark and colorless as the film becomes, and grows increasingly spare until a flash of fire ignites hope and resilience once again. The chiaroscuro (I just needed to use that word) in the latter is particularly painterly.

Continuing its fame for being a showcase of British thespian supremacy, Half-Blood Prince added yet another tremendous asset to its cast list in Jim Broadbent, who winningly portrays Horace Slughorn, the new potions professor at Hogwarts for Harry’s sixth academic year. Broadbent is particularly gifted as both a comedic talent and for his humanistic dramatic touches as well. He gives Slughorn a complete three dimensionality as Rowling’s prose intended, whether providing some of the best facial expressions of the series, or conveying the deep regret over Slughorn’s past. As has been mentioned, since it acts as a prelude to the expansive finale, Half-Blood Prince acts as the most overtly comedic film of the series. All of the younger actors in particular have some solid moments of comedic timing, especially Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson displays some of her finest work here in quieter, subtle fashion. It must be said that as consistently funny as this film is (even better than most American high school comedies), that comedy comes at the expense of the plot. Dumbledore and Harry’s investigation in Half-Blood Prince is absolutely vital to providing exposition in the following film, but more than half of the film devotes itself to the comedy. Again, this is not entirely detrimental, but part of me wishes that if the film were more balanced, it could have resulted in an overall stronger piece. Nevertheless, for its sumptuous visuals and lighthearted touch, Half-Blood Prince provides the appropriate calm before the metaphorical storm.


~ by romancinema on January 26, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: