The Harry Potter carnival arrives back in town, and the good news is that it’s better than ever before.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was the longest and hardest-going of the books so far but the extensive trimming required to ensure that it didn’t become a bum-numbing cinematic trial means that the film benefits from the sharper editing that the book could have done with. The result is a gripping, intense and most unchildlike two hours and 18 minutes of top-class film entertainment.
There’s a fresh pair of hands at the helm in director David Yates, who makes the transition from a background of mainly TV work with ease.
Make no mistake, this is a much darker, bleaker affair than any of the previous films. It’s set in a sombre world washed in greys, where it feels like winter for most of the school year.
This tone is demonstrated right from the start when Harry and a superbly chavvy cousin Dudley face a Dementor attack in a grimy underpass, resulting in Har being hauled in front of the Ministry of Magic for improper use of his powers. He returns to Hogwarts under a cloud of accusations. The feelings of alienation continue, coupled with nightmares featuring Voldemort. It’s here that Daniel Radcliffe’s portrayal of Harry gets really interesting.
Since the last film he’s become grittier and more mature and he is now more than a match for the tone of the film. Yes, on the surface he’s essentially a more-than-averagely troubled teen but now, as you watch him wrestle with the mental torments that Voldemort supplies, you can really start believing that he’s a match for the Dark Lord. This is further demonstrated when he teaches a group of students who call themselves Dumbledore’s Army defensive magic.
This is also where the tone lightens temporarily, more humour shines through and Harry also gets to experience his first kiss. The boy is definitely growing up.
Some light relief also comes from the arrival of Professor Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as this year’s Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. Her penchant for pink adds a little colour to the proceedings and, initially at least, there’s humour to be had. But as her influence at Hogwarts increases, she’s not above adding her own brand of menace by imposing dozens and dozens of extra rules and, ultimately, torturing students.
Rarely has a character made the transition from book to film so seamlessly. Staunton’s pitch-perfect performance ensures that Umbridge is exactly as she is portrayed in the original text.
Sadly, and perhaps inevitably, there’s a fair bit missing. There’s no Quidditch, although a breathtaking scene early on shows that the best views of London can only be had on a broomstick, and many of the characters from previous films, mainly the teaching staff, have precious little to do and are reduced to fleeting glimpses in the briefest of scenes.
Rupert Grint, as Ron, whose reactions to situations simply light up the screen, is criminally underused. Having said that, it’s something of a relief where Emma Watson, as Hermione, is concerned. After five films, she still doesn’t seem to have picked up any more than the merest basics of acting.
The final scenes, where the pupils face a wizarding duel against a band of Death Eaters are nothing short of spectacular. The special effects are dazzling and the fight between Dumbledore and Voldemort is thunderously intense.
Harry’s final mental battle against his enemy is genuinely affecting and packs an unexpectedly emotional punch.
It’s hard to imagine how this series can improve any further, but the idea that it just might is hugely exciting.