Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Written by Torey Lightcap

Directed by David Yates
Warner Brothers, PG-13 rating

Before he undertook the Herculean adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling’s fifth installment in the inextinguishable Potter series, the director David Yates dwelt mostly in the world of television, making small-stage dramas about power—how it’s wielded, who has it, how quickly it can transmogrify into the apparatus of the corrupt or of the good. His HBO project The Girl in the Café, concerning the battle to adopt the Millennium Development Goals at the G8 Summit, directly preceded his wide commercial venture into the Wizarding World.

In an early moment of Café, a woman (freewheeling and jobless) notes to a man (a slavish civil servant) who’s about to drink his tea that he’s certainly heaping an awful lot of sugar into it. The man more or less agrees with her assertion, adding that even on the worst of days, he’d never put in more than four spoonfuls. We’re free to take such dialogue as being fluffily comedic if we so choose, but underneath it is a truth revealed by the story to come—that the level of sugar a government desires is commensurate with its appetite to hide the sometimes bitter taste of the truth.

The worse the situation, the more lumps we request for our tea, and therefore we continue to be suckered by the sweetness of our own lie about things being fine, even as they’re turning cold and sour on us. Sugar-coat it, hide it, repress it … just don’t bring it out into the light where we’ll have to deal with it.

Yates has preserved the genius of this thoroughly English symbol and re-presents it in Order of the Phoenix, again as a cipher for denial. This particular denial comes in the form of garishly pink-tinted sugar piled into the teacup of one Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), a Ministry of Magic-approved teacher sent to snoop at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends have come seeking a fifth year of instruction in the magical arts. (See Goblet of Fire and Prisoner of Azkaban reviews for backstory and derring-do.)

Umbridge isn’t just for laughs about proper British society folk; she’s the heart of Rowling and Yates’ argument that part of the way evil expresses itself is not so much in its own direct assertion of itself, but rather in the numbing fear it creates in those charged with officially naming and confronting it. Evil knows the supposedly “good” environs, systems, and power-players better than it knows itself, and it masters them with their own self-delusion. If we named it, we’d have to do something about it, so the plain truth is left unspoken, even when we witness it first-hand. Any child who acts otherwise is himself deemed a naughty little liar, and, in Umbridge’s repeated declaration, “Naughty children deserve to be punished.”

Everything about the surface of Umbridge’s world belies the real conflict boiling in the heart of Harry Potter. Dressed in bright hues of pink, her office bedecked with kittens, she gasps unflappable sighs of alrightness even as Hogwarts comes tumbling down around her ears. Yet scene by scene she decomposes until the pink is washed away, and what’s left is a desperate beast with ultimate loyalties to an empty institution propagating its own lies about the nonexistence of evil. She is no Rasputin, only an automaton, and as we digest the headlines these days, this should frighten us the most.

The Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew has something to say about this: “Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matt. 5:39). If this were an invitation into total pacifism as some have read, then Harry would be sunk and hopeless. But this verse has also been rendered, “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil” (Scholar’s Version). Nietzsche, quoted by Walter Wink, puts it even more succinctly: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” Umbridge and her boss, the Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), have not seen their way clear to this counsel. Their system is invested in the least amount of entropy and will use whatever it takes to quell it. Meanwhile, the evil we deny slithers on, unaddressed, as we fritter and lie, tie ourselves into knots, drive ourselves on to the brink.

The evil here, of course, being Lord Voldemort and his minions, the Death Eaters. (Gulp—more sugar, please). By now we should be used to seeing Ralph Fiennes with his face rubbed away by computer artists, but the effect remains singularly chilling, and it reminds us that Voldemort has traded his wholeness for Grade-B immortality. No disfigurement, however, can negate either his charisma or the loyalty felt by his closest followers. In this sense, he, like Fudge, has been elected to his post. Unlike Fudge, though, Voldemort is a man (just a man, let’s remember) with a stunning and stuntingly finite vision for himself, and his election is a means to a personal end.

Here we might recall Giddes MacGregor’s theological treatment of power: “when you elect a man …, you should recognise (sic) that the qualities of strength and power that you have admired and for which you have elected him are such as equip him to use his power against you as well as for you. Once you have elected him, the very factors of ambition and self-seeking that have made you elect him in the first place are just those factors that will make him more likely to use you than to serve you.” (He Who Lets Us Be, p. 169).

It turns out that we can basically take this at face value, at least as far as Voldemort’s inner sanctum is concerned. The programmed brand loyalties of an Umbridge pale next to the unlimited fealty of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). Like Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme in our Muggle world, Lestrange’s lifetime imprisonment for crimes committed on the Dark Lord’s behalf is a trifle, merely the effect of marching orders. Anything—even murder—can be made to seem like fun if it can be construed as a sacrifice to Voldemort.

Order of the Phoenix can’t be regarded only as a bridge film, though technically it may be. (Its final scene will drive you nuts if you like closure.) Large, loud, and sleek, it’s so much more—a technically adept and direct accusation of our complicity in violence. Our response to this film could well start with a prayer for deliverance—from all blindness of heart, from false doctrine, from lightning, and tempest—and a plea to bring into the way of truth all who are deceived.1

1: Adapted from “The Great Litany” in the Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer.

Copyright @ 2007 Torey Lightcap.