Friendly Fascism

Posted October 3, 2007 in Film

Harry Potter hasn’t died (yet), but the giddy naïf whose eyes twinkled when he waved his wand is long in the grave. Five films into the franchise, he carries his magic stick like it’s made of concrete, not phoenix feathers. Daniel Radcliff’s cheeks have gone gaunt, his shoulders square, and underneath his signature bangs, his forehead is as creased as an old treasure map.

Order of the Phoenix is J.K. Rowling’s most grounded novel; with just minor plot tweaks, this solemn study of a boarding school on the eve of destruction could be Au Revoir Les Enfants or Dead Poets Society, with kindly Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) standing in as the professor whose simple presence rallies the troops. Voldemort is alive, the dark forces are marshaling, but the spooked Ministry of Magic is too stuck in the “Shall-Not-Be-Named” era to dare admit the threat.

Instead, Cornelius Fudge (a fatuous Robert Hardy) would rather discredit the messenger by expelling Harry from Hogwarts and calming the populace with platitudes like “Security will remain our greatest priority.” In a frantic misinformation campaign, Harry’s godfather Sirius (Gary Oldman)—not Voldemort—has been named Public Enemy One. (You just know Fudge would give anything to turn him up in a spiderhole.)   Meanwhile, the Ministry is estranging possible allies, and innocent people are disappearing. As Remus Lupin warns Harry, “Fear makes people do terrible things.”

The book was shipped out in June 2003, but feels like an editorial dashed out last month by Christopher Hitchens. Fascism is timeless. And it’s spread to Hogwarts in the prim form of new Defense of the Dark Arts professor Delores Umbridge (a wicked Imelda Staunton), who looks like Mamie Eisenhower and rules like Mussolini. She signals her intention to fire Hagrid by spraying an X on his hut in perfume. Umbridge’s insistence on a duck-and-cover response to danger forces Harry and the gang to go underground, learning spells in a secret room like wizarding Anne Franks.

In fact, it often feels that director David Yates enjoys dressing up Harry’s ordeals with highbrow references; the entrance to the Ministry of Magic has the intimidating grandeur of Leni Riefenstahl, and when Harry boards the train to Hogwarts, the station’s traded Chris Columbus’ bustling brightness for the smoky, moody blacks of Dr. Zhivago. But my favorite part of the films has always been matching up the supporting players to their rock star twin. With Snape as Trent Reznor, Sirius as Wayne Cohen, Voldemort as Moby after a knife fight, and Lucius Malfoy channeling the Nelson twins, they’d be a hell of a band if they weren’t all set on vengeance.

Still, most of this gloom stays internal, as this Harry Potter is strikingly free of action. It’d be dismissive to call this fifth installment a waystation—it’s tied with Goblet of Fire for my favorite—but even in the book, the climactic battle packs a pretty, but harmless punch. The scariest thing in the film isn’t the escape of the Death Eaters, but Ms. Umbridge’s office, an airless, pink parlor covered in china plates painted with kittens that mew in sad stereo. And through it all moons the young Mr. Potter, the Hamlet of his generation. Distrusted and misunderstood, he can hardly rally himself for his first kiss with Cho Chang (Katie Leung). You almost sense him yearning to be released from the misery of high pressure and damn the cost. With bookies betting six-to-one that Harry gets whacked in Deathly Hallows, perhaps J.K Rowling agrees.




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