/ 13 July 2007

Few new flavours for HP sauce

The first thing that should be noted about the new Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is that Harry has a new haircut. Hairstyles, as I have noted in these pages before, are very important signifiers in movies, and I think Harry’s new hairdo is telling us that he has matured somewhat, that the old floppy-hair look has passed its sell-by date and that a slightly more severe style is now required.

In the middle of HP5, as this instalment is conveniently abbreviated in the trade, we are given a brief flashback to HP1. For a moment we see the much-younger Harry and the contrast between the baby-faced child he once was and the steadily maturing Harry of the new movie couldn’t be starker. Harry is now distinctly square of jaw, to go with his increasing earnestness, and is developing what one can only call a Roman profile.

The actor playing Harry is Daniel Radcliffe, who has certainly signalled his own growth by appearing on the London stage in Peter Schaffer’s hoary old horse opera, Equus. The fact that this role requires Radcliffe (who is 17) to go a bit mad and rush about the stage naked is presumably both a signal of encroaching adulthood and a claim for some independence from the HP franchise, which has two more movies yet to go. The seventh and last book, as every literate person in the world knows, is about to materialise in bookshops — and finally the saga will be over.

Until then it rather feels like we’re treading water until the big climax arrives. In narrative terms HP5 hasn’t got much to do beyond keeping the various plot elements on the boil, most importantly the ongoing conflict between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. On the side of light are Harry himself, of course, and goodies such as Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), head of Hogwarts school for wizards, as well as a secret society called, yes, the Order of the Phoenix. On the evil side there is the resurgent ”dark lord”, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), and his various minions.

There is not much work here for the stalwart character actors of the series, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, et al; they barely have more than walk-on parts. Gambon has a bit more to do, though not much — Dumbledore is usually required to put the denouement together and provide some explanations at the end, and so he does. Otherwise, the focus is chiefly on Harry and his friends and their particular activities, without too much distraction from the old people.

The exception is Hogwarts’s new ”inquisitor”, a giggling nightmare in pink played to the hilt by Imelda Staunton. She does a competent job, but you can’t help feeling it’s a bit of a comedown from the heights of Vera Drake. Still, everyone has to do a bit of light entertainment now and then. As the rather obviously named Dolores Umbridge, she is the chief representative of a new element in the Harry Potter series: an account of internal political wrangling within the wizardly community, with a leader perpetually in denial about looming crises.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here for our own head of state, and it’s a pity our ruling party can’t resolve its internal conflicts via some flash-bang duels with wands. Such action scenes are reasonably well staged in HP5, but perhaps there weren’t enough of them to keep the viewer fully engaged. This instalment certainly lacks something in the thrills department, and the emotional stuff is repetitive.

I attended a screening with many young audience members and, at the urinals afterwards, I heard a boy of about six ask his neighbour, of the same age, what he thought the best scene was. ”When the dementor sucks out the guy’s soul,” replied the other. And that happens in the first five minutes.