Harry Potter and the lack of focus

Posted: July 09, 2007

With the fifth installment of the Harry Potter films in theaters tonight and the seventh, and final, tome due in bookstores on the 21st, Potter fever is epidemic.

Here's hoping, though, that Book No. 7 is better than Movie No. 5, a slog that might induce Potter fatigue even among stalwarts.

Until Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the Potter pictures were that rare franchise in which each new film topped the prior one. This time around, there's a notable backslide, the filmmakers frustrated in their attempt to telescope 800-plus pages into two-plus hours during which Harry fights demons inner and outer while experiencing hormonal surges and grieving the loss of a loved one.

In Phoenix, director David Yates, who has exhibited sensitive rapport with actors in his work for British TV (The Girl in the Cafe, The Way We Live Now), does a splendid job with the performers.

Standouts are Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, Harry's sly father-surrogate, and Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge, Hogwarts' Maggie Thatcherish new headmistress, a tyrant in Pepto-Bismol pink.

But Yates lacks a steady grip on the shape and rhythm of the film, where the teen wizard challenges Umbridge, a smiling despot, by founding a resistance movement that's enlisted during a showdown at the Ministry of Magic.

Clearly a people person (a good thing in a director), Yates does not always successfully integrate his humans with the special effects. More often than not, the effects overwhelm the story. An exception is a thrilling sequence in which Harry and company zoom over a twinkling London astride Thestrals, winged horses flying in formation like a gaggle of enchanted geese.

Befitting the teens at the center of its story, the mood of Phoenix is stormier - in terms of both temperament and weather - than Potters previous.

"I feel so angry all the time!" exclaims Harry, whose rage has meteorological effect not unlike that of Stephen King's Carrie. Harry has special powers, and though it's forbidden to use them in front of Muggles, he isn't fully in control of his emotions.

While his cousin bullies him during a heat wave that has left England yellow and parched, a flock of dementors preys on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, muscled as though fresh from the weight room), who uses his wand to subdue the life-sucking spirits.

Practicing underage magic, like driving without a license, gets Harry suspended from Hogwarts and tried by a tribunal. Dumbledore and associates get Harry reinstated. Still, the folks over at the Ministry of Magic, sorcery's Department of State, deny Harry's claims that Lord Voldemort (the noseless Ralph Fiennes) is alive and a threat to the wizarding realm.

The familiar rituals and rhythms of Hogwarts are largely absent from Order of the Phoenix, which presents the school and its new management no longer as a bewitching academic retreat but as a dank prison where Umbridge is new warden. Not only does Harry long to break free of Hogwarts, but he fights to break into the Ministry of Magic - controlled by his political opponents - to find the prophecy that holds his fate. Harry's nightmarish premonitions flicker through much of The Order of the Phoenix.

The fascinating politics of this tale - with the racial purists at the Ministry of Magic who oppose Harry's ideology of inclusion, his advocacy of those like Hermione who are born of Muggle parents, and of mixed breeds like the centaurs - are not as explicit here as they are in the book.

Initially hired to be the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Umbridge dictates that students learn theory rather than actually practice wizarding. Which is like telling virtuosos that they can study the premises of music rather than play their instruments.

As much to subvert Umbridge Protectorate as to prepare for moral battle, Harry creates "Dumbledore's Army," Hogwarts' version of the military that initiates the Restoration of Dumbledore.

Still, as he secretly trains his friends in the art of wands, curses and levitation, Harry wonders why Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) are so ... remote. And, yes, this is the movie that features Harry's first kiss, which lacks the electricity of his relations with Hermione. In short, there's a lot going on in a movie that proceeds in three directions at once.

It seems to be a rule that the Potter franchise constitutes a full-employment act for Brit thespians. And Yates seems to have everyone except Hugh Grant and Helen Mirren in this one. Finally, fleeting glimpses of the introverted Emma Thompson and the extroverted Helena Bonham Carter distract the moviegoer from the very critical business of Harry's coming of age, in the romantic, political and wizarding senses.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/

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