“The things we lose have a way of coming back to us.”
So ITV is doing another of its Harry Potter rerun cycles, and because there is astonishingly little else to watch on a Saturday evening I tuned in. For anyone unfamiliar with the HP behemoth, Order of the Phoenix is the one where the Ministry for Magic essentially goes nuts, refusing to believe that Voldemort is back, sending the sadistic Dolores Umbridge to interfere at Hogwarts, and trying to get Harry expelled so he can stop spreading his seditious lies.
The problem with Phoenix, really, is that it’s set not on telling a story but in describing a state: charting the gradual slide of the wizarding world into ignorance and denial. This, in itself, would be fine; but the film has trouble marrying its broad look at the decline of a society with the individual focus on the Boy Who Lived which the franchise demands. It can’t decide whether it’s about Hogwarts or about Harry, and both sides suffer as the film tries to pack everything in. The enormity of Umbridge’s torture of her students never really sinks in, but neither does Cho Chang’s betrayal of Dumbledore’s Army, the secret student society trying to learn Defence Against the Dark Arts.
This is a shame, because what Rowling did in Phoenix is actually a surprisingly nuanced view of a government’s reaction to a real threat. The Ministry, supposedly a bastion of protection and trust, takes the route of simple denial: it’s too terrible, and too inconvenient, to believe what’s actually happening, and easier to write the rumours off as those of a madman. The film makes some obvious visual parallels with Nazism, but that simplifies Rowling’s situation drastically: while the novel’s main villain is Umbridge, she isn’t the enemy as such. Even Voldemort, distant as he is from the action, isn’t really the enemy here; the real enemy is fear, and I think what we see in the Ministry’s reaction to Harry’s claims – especially the reaction of the weak, paranoid Minster Cornelius Fudge – is a kind of twisted reflection of our own government’s inertia on crises like climate change. It’s simply inconvenient to acknowledge that these crises exist, especially when MPs aren’t looking beyond the next election; like Fudge, their priority is power, not government, and inertia on these issues arises out of a very real fear that any clear stance will lose a large slice of the electorate. But the film plays down this potent angle in order to focus on Harry, who isn’t very interesting at this point in the narrative: he’s too busy shouting at friends and teachers to react in any meaningful way to the crisis at Hogwarts. “You don’t understand how complicated this is,” he responds to Hermione’s suggestion that he go to Dumbledore about Umbridge’s torture; well, neither do we at this point. The film’s main character effectively comes off as a flake; to some extent he’s lost within his own narrative. The result is, unfortunately, that Phoenix is an essentially forgettable two hours of film, too bogged down in teenage angst to retain any of the magic or complexity of the original.