The Harry Potter film franchise is a cinematic achievement in and of itself. No other series I can think of relied so heavily on careful precision and consistency. Over the course of a decade, eight films were made retaining the same child actors from the beginning. Hence, there’s a true emotional connection throughout and for my generation that allowed us to grow up right alongside them. There were bumps in the road, notably the revolving door of four directors during the series and new cast members constantly being brought in. While I could have justified choosing any of the films to include in this guide, the fifth installment is both my personal favorite and the one I consider to be the most complete movie of the saga. It achieves the most success at telling a stand-alone story while also showcasing the events which establish the context for the final three films.
Like every other film in the series, this installment picks up shortly after where the previous film left off. At the end of the last installment, Voldemort was officially resurrected and his followers are now out in full force. Harry spends his summers away from school with his extended family that makes his life extremely miserable. At the beginning of this film, Harry defies the one major rule for underage wizards away from Hogwarts; he utilizes magic to save his cousin from a mystical dementor. He’s told that he’s expelled but appeals his case to the Ministry of Magic, gaining access back to school for a fifth term.
A great deal of change has swept through Hogwarts, as the ministry appointed one of their own members, Dolores Umbridge, to take post as “the defense against the dark arts teacher.” Ironically, she teaches the class without utilizing magic per decree of the Ministry. Harry and his fellow students spend the term in defiance of Umbridge, eventually creating an underground society that teaches proper defense against a now escalating force of evil. At the same time, Voldemort’s return is placing a psychological strain on Harry. He can peep into Voldemort’s mind and lives in constant fear that he is becoming more like his nemesis. Not only does Harry have to teach others how to defend themselves, but he’s also battling with his own inner defenses throughout the film.
The Order of the Phoenix in the title refers to a secret society that fought against Voldemort in years prior. The group has gotten back together in light of Voldemort’s return and pending plan to wipe out the non-wizarding world. While the order includes many former teachers and friends of Harry, his true guidance comes from his godfather Sirius, the only true loving family member that he has left. Gary Oldman is a true highlight of this film; his portrayal of Sirius rings true to the book. The book itself is the biggest in length of the series. Coincidentally, this is the shortest film of the eight. Screenplay writer Michael Goldenberg succeeded where others stumbled, as he effortlessly trimmed the fat of the book to make for a shorter but faithful rendition of the novel. The heart of the book was Harry’s psychological battle with Voldemort while coming to terms with himself as a leader, both of which are the forefront points of the film.
This is the first film in the series where Radcliffe’s acting took the next step. He conveys Harry’s inner turmoil in a very convincing manner while also showing that Harry is potentially becoming more like Voldemort. His performance conveys anger, resentment, and fear. Standout scenes include his occlumency lessons with Professor Snape in which he attempts to block Snape’s attempts to penetrate his psyche. Harry vents his struggles through Sirius and the exchanges between Oldman and Radcliffe are as genuine as a father/son relationship. It’s a very touching moment when Sirius comforts Harry by stating, “you’re not a bad person. You’re a very good person although bad things have happened to you.” The movie succeeds at driving the differences between Harry and Voldemort into Harry’s mind. Dumbledore mentions, “it isn’t about how you are alike. It’s how you are different.” It’s Harry’s film through and through; while Ron and Hermione are present they’re more in the background and don’t get their own major subplots.
First time director to the franchise David Yates steps right into the series and fixes many issues I had with the previous film Goblet of Fire. It’s not as obvious large chunks of the novel were cut for time; as a result this film moves at a brisker and smoother pace. Tonally, this film achieves a better balance; the comedic elements don’t overshadow the dark character study Harry is undergoing. When it gets grim during the third act, it doesn’t feel out of place but necessary to show things have changed in the wizard world. The finale is gut wrenching in its closing moments and a character death transitions better to screen than it did in the book.
Speaking of the third act, this is the first movie that really showcases the wizard duels one would expect. When Harry and friends battle the Death Eaters in the department of mysteries, it’s exhilarating watching colors and beams of light whisk across the screen. We even get a climactic showdown between Dumbledore and Voldemort, which allows for the audience to finally realize the power these two men can draw. It actually reminds me a lot of the duel sequence from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. The two wizards are so evenly matched that neither seems to gain an advantage. It’s a true exercise in special effects which stands out amongst all the films.
While Voldemort, who is once again played by Ralph Fiennes, is present during the film, there are two female villains who command evil in this movie. Umbridge is brought to life exactly how I pictured her in the novel by Imelda Staunton; she’s the teacher from hell most of us had at some point in our school days. She may appear calm and gentle, but her pink attires and cat motifs hide a sinister human being underneath. Despite not coming into the film until about halfway through, Bellatrix Lestrange is arguably the individual who steals the movie. Helena Bonham Carter was the perfect casting choice for the role and represents Voldemort without any restrictions. Between Carter and Staunton, the characters they bring to life might be considered more twisted in the eyes of Potter fans than the dark lord himself.
Like the other films in the franchise, the Order of the Phoenix excels at displaying a unique world. The sets are all perfectly realized from Rowling’s writings, they blend in seamlessly with the more grounded elements Yates utilizes in his films. Modern technology is brought more to the forefront but Hogwarts still feels like a time capsule of a few centuries back.The Order of the Phoenix reminds me of a capsule for the franchise itself, as it combines the strongest elements from the prior films to make a satisfying stand-alone film. Containing the fantastical scope of the first two Columbus films, the emotional resonance from the third film, and the action packed scenes from the fourth film, it tells a delightful and dark story that has clear start and end points for the characters. It’s one of the few films that doesn’t necessarily require having seen the prior movies, although I can’t imagine why you would do that. The series is stronger on the whole, but The Order of the Phoenix is the one I recommend for casual viewers of the boy wizard saga.