After the first four Harry Potter movies, there was no question about the value and power of the series. Producer David Heyman, the three directors, and Warner Bros. had evolved a straightforward fantasy adaptation into a showcase for British talent in front of and behind the camera. Harry Potter was just a big a hit on screen as it had been on the page.
There was just one question. Where could the series go after the twin successes of Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban and Mike Newell’s Goblet of Fire? Warner Bros. surprised fans yet again with the choice of director for the fifth movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The new filmmaker shepherded the series all the way to the end and helped Harry Potter truly grow up along the way.
The New Guy
In 2006, David Yates was primarily a director for television. His hire raised eyebrows. This was before the television landscape was remapped by the effects-heavy spectacle like Game of Thrones. Audiences wondered how a television director would handle the epic scope of Harry Potter.
Now, we know producer David Heyman and Warner Bros. made a smart choice. Yates’s chief talent is working with actors. The Potter cast had already proven itself in four films. And yet Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint were still coming into their own as actors. Yates was just the right choice to push them forward. Working with Yates, the trio finished the task of making the characters their own.
Heyman explained the hire to Variety. He said, “it’s important to keep pushing the actors, particularly the young ones on each Potter film. This is a political film, not with a capital P, but it’s about teen rebellion and the abuse of power. David has made films in the U.K. about politics without being heavy-handed.”
Order of the Phoenix is, indeed, the most political film in the Harry Potter series. It describes a rebellion against the Ministry of Magic, as the Ministry denies Voldemort’s return. Yates and his team gave the film a sense of place by shooting in real locations, following the pattern established by Prisoner of Azkaban. They also used real-world history to inform the look and feel of the Wizarding World at a crucial turning point.
The image of Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, is presented on a giant banner that could come straight from a real-life campaign. Dolores Umbridge, the power-hungry Ministry sycophant set as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, is clearly based on figures such as Margaret Thatcher.
When Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince depicts young Tom Riddle, aka Voldemort, Yates makes him appear very real – and quite dangerous. The film also shows how dangerous alliances can be, as Snape is backed into a corner and ultimately forced to kill Dumbledore, in one of the most powerful scenes in the entire series.
Coming Of Age
Even as the world of magic threatens to turn upside-down, Harry and his friends continue to grow up. That means they’ve got a lot to deal with before getting to Voldemort. There are romantic entanglements, and Yates expertly weaves the growing attraction between Harry and Ginny Weasley into Order of the Phoenix, leading to their first kiss in The Half-Blood Prince. Yates steals moments to let characters gaze at one another, and for us to see their adolescent uncertainties.
There’s also the simple fact of these people learning how to deal with one another on an adult level. Draco Malfoy is growing into a bitter, sneering man. No surprise there, but Yates and actor Tom Felton evoke as much sympathy for Malfoy as they do hatred. Neville Longbottom, meanwhile, inches closer and closer to his heroic awakening. His scenes in Order of the Phoenix are particularly satisfying.
These two films lead Harry and company straight into Rowling’s endgame, and both expertly create the sense that we’re seeing the students at Hogwarts grapple with difficult questions as they grow up. The magic and spectacle of the Harry Potter films is just the hook that gets us to pay attention. The real magic is in the unique opportunity to watch these actors and characters all mature together.
The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince are highlights in the Harry Potter series, thanks to the windows they open on the most crucial formative days of Harry, Ron, Hermione, and all the other students around them.