I am unfamiliar enough with the Harry Potter saga that I miss plenty of references. For example, the pseudonym “Padfoot” is used a few times in this film to refer to Gary Oldman’s character Sirius Black, and harks back to the names on the magical map seen in the third film, but none of this is explained and I had to ask my wife to fill me in (for others in my position, the names refer to the four friends who created the map — “Padfoot” being Black, “Moony” being David Thewlis’s Lupin, “Wormtail” Timothy Spall’s Peter, and “Prongs” Harry’s now-dead father, the first two of whom return here as the core of a sort of wizarding resistance movement). Likewise, I wonder if this film is remembered for being the one in which Harry gets his first kiss (an incident very quickly brushed past), or maybe for its strong undertones of teenage ennui and moodiness? However, if it’s remembered for anything, it’s surely for the way it links in the developing story of Lord Voldemort’s return with the wider universe within which Potter resides. As such, it’s also the film where author J.K. Rowling’s political allegorising starts becoming particularly evident.
If it wasn’t yet clear what register the Potter universe works in, the opening few moments make it clear, starting as they do in bright, garish sunshine. It’s almost shocking, but it doesn’t take long for the grey lowering clouds to roll in, and we’re set for another few hours of gothic-tinged teenaged sorcery. If we hadn’t been following the series (and its actors) from the outset, we would still know right away how old they were from the hormonally self-inflated sense of angst that the first act of this film indulges in, as Harry mopes about filled with (terribly adolescent) ennui about his nascent life’s twists and turns that even Hermione and Ron are unable to snap him out of. To be fair, he’s been expelled from Hogwarts (though that’s revoked fairly swiftly), but the doubts about his character remain throughout the film, as the rest of his class are divided as to whether he is telling the truth about Cedric’s death and Voldemort’s return at the end of the previous film. What’s interesting is that Rowling’s plot links in Harry’s emotional turbulence not with adolescence but with the effect of his encounter with Voldemort, whose presence looms throughout like Harry’s shadowy alter ego. There are some new characters here too, against whom Harry’s ennui is played off, mostly notably the serenely detached Luna, who shares with him a certain morbidity. On the side of the good guys is the titular Order arrayed around Michael Gambon’s wizened Dumbledore (even in a photo of them in their youth, he sports a long white beard), a revolutionary cell operating from a magically-hidden home on a well-to-do London street.
Indeed, as I mentioned above, what’s most interesting is the wider political ramifications that are opened up by Harry’s dalliance with Voldemort. Finally we begin to see what’s at stake for the entire society, as the Ministry of Magic takes on a more central role (with the Order of the Phoenix in opposition). At one level, it’s clearly dominated by Conservative ideology, and if the film’s set design and costumes hark to the wartime era of the 1930s and 1940s, then that makes the Minister something of a Neville Chamberlain figure, (unwittingly perhaps) appeasing the dark forces of Voldemort’s Hitler. Indeed, as my wife has suggested, Sirius Black and his family are somewhat analogous to the aristocratic Mitfords, with Sirius as the revolutionary left-wing Jessica to his unhinged newly-introduced sister Bellatrix’s Nazi/Voldemort-sympathising Unity. (The latter is played by Helena Bonham Carter, putting in as restrained a performance as ever, i.e. not even a bit.) Even the Potter world’s newspaper, the Daily Prophet, has more than a little of the bitter tabloid muck-raking of the Daily Mail. Then again, the government’s self-important representative at Hogwarts, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), has more in common with Margaret Thatcher, so the historical parallels aren’t precise. Certainly, though, you don’t get the sense that Rowling has much love for the Tories.
None of this would matter a whole lot if the film were badly made, but I think the producers have got everything down to an art by this point, and even a change of screenwriter doesn’t seem to have dented its forward momentum. (The director and cinematographer have also changed once again, but that’s been a regular occurrence up to now, though as it happens David Yates helms all the remaining films.) There’s still a lot of plot to get through, but things are rather less convoluted now that we have a proper evil antagonist to deal with, even if he still seems to be more of an oneiric than a corporeal presence at this point. Many of the character actors we’ve been introduced to up until now show up, though some (like David Thewlis, Jason Isaacs, and Emma Thompson’s divination teacher Sybill) are little more than walk-on cameos. Still, it’s a solid lead in to the surely cataclysmic denouement to the series.
Next: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
Director David Yates; Writer Michael Goldenberg (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Sławomir Idziak; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Imelda Staunton, Gary Oldman; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 30 December 2013.