Barring the inherent appeal of the J.K. Rowling source material (which, to us non-Potter readers is a moot point), the winning chemistry of Radcliff, Watson, Grint and company is, finally, the only reason to stick this one out. The directorial energy and invention of the past two entries (courtesy of Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell) raised the bar of the Potter series beyond Chris Columbus’ rather inert and unimaginative takes on the first two Potter installments. Yates’ direction hews closer to the Columbus model than to either Cuarón’s or Newell’s inspired turns.
What Yates gives us is a joyless, by-the-numbers Harry Potter, club-footed and ponderous in tone and, generally, an exercise in patience and loyalty to have to sit through, at least for fans of the past two films. The plot is essentially another run-through of intrigue and insidiousness pitting Harry and friends against a cabal of wizards keen on seizing control of Hogwarts from Dumbledore, and, thereby, paving the way for Voldemort to close in on Harry. As the cabal’s infiltrant, Dolores Umbridge, Staunton is pitch-perfect in her twinkle-eyed, campy villainousness. Under Umbridge’s pert nose, Harry begins secretly to recruit his fellow wizards-in-training in organizing a small force to defend against Voldemort’s imminent invasion.
The previous two Potter films wielded visual creativity, but Phoenix is so flat in that department that one begins to wonder, well, where all the wonder went. The effects are a return to the embarrassing stodginess that characterized the Columbus efforts, and Yates’ storytelling, so self-serious, breaks a sweat trying to stay faithful to Rowling’s dour tone. What Yates, and likeminded adaptors need to bear in mind is that cinematic flair always trumps slavish adherence to source material, and, furthermore, just because the story’s a bummer does not mean that the storytelling ought to be. Other supporting members in the cast — Gambon, Fiennes, Oldman et al. — are all dutifully solid in their roles, as they have been in past Potter outings. And it’s that quality in the film’s performances — a lived-in, reliable sense of trust we’ve now gained for each of the series’ performers that keeps us engaged in Phoenix’s storyline. We turn to Phoenix to re-connect with performers who’ve, by now, won our hearts, only to have Yates dampen the party.
Directed by: David Yates
Screenplay by: Michael Goldenberg
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Oldman, Julie Walters, David Thewlis