All hail David Yates, the director who finally moved the Harry Potter films into the realm of greatness. Many people credit Alfonso Cauron with the first great Harry Potter film, and though he definitely paved the way for Yates’ work, Prisoner of Azkaban is a decidedly mixed success. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a great film that I could stand alongside any other great film without any qualms. It’s a superb combination of beautiful cinematography, great acting, wonderful writing, and astonishing action.
Let me start at the most immediately noticeable aspect of this film: the visuals. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is simply beautiful to look at. David Yates, with the help of cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, paints a beautiful portrait of Harry Potter’s universe. He adopts the dark tone of Cauron’s film, while grounding it in a more gritty, realistic atmosphere. The result is a film that for the first time feels like it takes place in something resembling an extension of the real world. There is a plethora of raw detail in every frame, and Yates isn’t afraid to push brightness and contrasting colours. The opening scene, for example, set in a brightly desaturated park that very quickly shifts into dark tones of black and blue. Yates’ control over the mood of the film through its visuals is masterful, and he is never out of step with the story. The film is bright and colourful when it needs to be, but it isn’t afraid to push into darkness when the story calls for it.
The acting in Order of the Phoenix is also great. Daniel Radcliffe is better than ever. He now seems to really click with Harry Potter as a character. Michael Gambon is fantastic, and an incredible improvement over what we saw of him in Goblet of Fire. Rupert Grint just nails the comedy better than ever. Even Brendan Geelson as Mad-Eye is better and more subdued than he was in the previous movie. Literally the only person who is still irritating is Emma Watson. Her eyebrow acting is still present, and trust me, once you notice it it’s impossible to look away. Gary Oldman returns as Sirius, and here he actually gets a chance to really act. I wish there were more scenes with him, but the one with Harry in the Tapestry Room is beautiful and emotional. And of course, Alan Rickman as Snape and Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort are both terrific once again.
But the most noteworthy performance in the film is a new addition. Imelda Staunton thoroughly embodies the creepily sinister Dolores Umbridge. Her presence in the film is so dastardly, and her character so scary and so easy to hate, that she completely steals the show as the villain of the film. Even Voldemort seems a little cookie-cutter by comparison. Yates also does her well by playing up her cutesy manner. Everything around her is pink and fluffy. Her office walls are covered with collector plates featuring adorable kittens. All the more disturbing when contrasted with Harry writing lines that painfully carve into the back of his hand.
And oh, the writing. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the first and only film in the series not written by Steve Kloves. Evidently he needed a break, so writing duties fell to Michael Goldenberg. I’m not sure I can vouch for any of his other work, but here he delivers wonderfully. Goldenberg took the longest book in the series and pared it down into what would become the shortest film. He cuts out a lot of the fat, and condenses scenes without losing any of the character development or emotional impact. In fact, sly tricks like giving Oldman that extended scene in the Tapestry Room make up for cutting out his character in many other places, and allows for the impact of Sirius’ death to be just as powerful as in the book. Adaptation is a clever art, but Goldenberg does his source material justice while making it work cinematically. There is an economy and flow to the film, but the narrative never feels like it has any missing pieces, as has often been the case with Kloves’ scripts.
Then we get to the action. Most of the action is reserved for the end of the film, but Yates does it right even from the opening scene. The tension during the Dementor attack is great, and the way he frames everything is truly scary, and when Harry uses the Patronus it is exhilarating. And throughout the film Yates portrays the use of magic perfectly. Whereas previous films have made a big deal of their magical qualities, Yates’ grounding of the film in a kind of reality makes the magic seem to stem much more naturally from the world. Spells are treated like quick gunshots, and charms have the neat effectiveness of modern technology. The Dumbledore’s Army sequences are fun to watch. Yates gets the humour just right, and finds a way to show the progression of learning magic through classic montage that still feels fresh and exciting.
The true excitement, though, comes during the film’s climax. The battle in the Hall of Prophesies is a visual and aural tour de force. Spells whizz and crack by with stunning energy, and it all has the feel of an awesome gunfight played out in a fantastical setting and with fantastical guns. At one point during the chase through the endless shelves of prophecies, Ginny Weasley casts a spell so powerful it causes practically the entire room to explode and all the shelves to being falling like dominos. It’s a moment so effectively delivered that even watching it again it took my breath away.
Then the action shifts to a setting not unlike a dark cave. The kids are cornered, but suddenly the Order of the Phoenix arrives in drops of bright white smoke. The fight moves into a whole new realm of awesome. Spells are cast back and forth so effortlessly that at some points they feel like carefully choreographed sword fights. And almost as quickly as it all began, it all comes to a screeching halt. Sirius is killed and the moment is painfully drawn out. Harry chases a maniacal Bellatrix LeStrange down the main corridor of the Ministry and there he comes face to face with Voldemort himself.
Before anything seriously dangerous can happen, Dumbledore shows up. And if the previous bit of action between the Order and the Death Eaters was awesome, the sequence that follows it is insanely badass. I simply have no better way to describe it. The force of magic used is epic in a way that we have not yet experienced in the series. What was previously a sword fight has become a majestic dance. Huge spells fly back and forth and are manipulated and sent back out into the room. There are no verbal spells, no talking, it’s all left to the amazing cinematography, effects, and most of all the sound effects. The sound in this scene is some of the best sound work I have ever heard. Each spell radiates and envelops the rooms. One spell involving a sphere of water sounds dense and heavy, and then another, in which a spell is condensed into nothingness and silence and then blasts outward causing glass to shatter and fly everywhere is mindblowing. This is easily the best climactic sequence in the series so far. I would imagine only Deathly Hallows Part 2 could give it a run for its money, but even that grand finale would have a hard time topping what Yates did here.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix truly is the first great Harry Potter film. For four films the series was carefully finding its footing, and here David Yates has simply put his foot down and claimed his place as the best director in the franchise. The film crackles with energy and mood. The visuals soar and the acting is almost uniformly accomplished. Even the writing has taken a significant step up, maintaining all the qualities that were great in the book and translating them into the language of cinema. And speaking of the language of cinema, the three-stage climactic battle at the end of the film is perhaps one of the best, most brilliantly crafted action scenes of the last decade. That is not hyperbole. Even the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers is too simple and sustained to reach the soaring heights of Ginny’s spell or the duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort. It’s masterful, simply masterful. It’s filmmaking at its best, and finally that can be said about a film featuring the Boy Who Lived.