As the Muggles say, “Truth will out.”
— Arthur Weasley (Mark Williams)
The kiss. Though poor Daniel Radcliffe is rightly tired of answering questions about it, the kiss may be the most significant event in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It is somewhat sad if inevitable, denoting that Harry is — so slowly — growing up (and so signaling the eventual end of the franchise), wrestling with death, desire, and guilt in ways he couldn’t have imagined in 2001’s Sorcerer’s Stone. And Order of the Phoenix, for all its shortcomings, does make clear the sense of loss and struggle that comes with maturity.
Such sense is manifest in the kiss. Less a Spider Many spectacle than a poignant manifestation of youthful yearning and confusion, it shows that Harry can’t quite empathize wholly with his object of affection, Cho Chang (Katie Leung). His mad wizard skills newly recognized, Harry’s teaching an illicit class in Defense Against the Dark Arts, and she’s his student, their mutual attraction thus framed by a discomforting power dynamic. More to the point, both are grieving the death of Cho Chang’s boyfriend Cedric (Robert Pattinson), killed in Goblet of Fire (which Harry witnessed, granting him understanding beyond that of peers who have not seen death). And both are troubled by the peculiar political swirl around Hogwarts, the official denials that Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is back, that order is uncertain, that good and evil may not be exactly what they appear. Amid this havoc, Harry and Cho steal a moment that is, as Radcliffe says, less romantic than “incredibly complicated.”
The film doesn’t actually pursue such complication; the book on which it’s based is, famously, 896 pages, impossible to reduce to 139 minutes. Instead, it makes allusions, even as the kiss itself is rendered rather banal (circling camera, swelling soundtrack). The more pertinent point about the kiss comes in its aftermath, when Harry remembers it for Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) — neither having enough to do in this film. Pressed for words, all Harry can manage is “Wet!” Though Hermione is typically brilliant, suggesting that Cho Chang’s tears at the time of the kiss were due to her mixed sadness and guilt over liking Harry when Cedric is barely gone, Ron is less perceptive: “You’d think a bit of snogging would cheer her up.” Hermione again points out his boyish limits, noting he has “the emotional range of a teaspoon,” and all three have a good laugh. But the respite is brief, for in seconds the kids are drawn back into the Voldemort puzzle, by way of a moderately ooky visit from Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, whose puckish energy is so very welcome in this self-serious franchise).
The puzzle has to do with Voldemort’s ongoing pursuit of Harry, and Harry’s emerging pursuit of him, which intimates the young man’s own (potential) darkness. The darkness is repeatedly imaged in Harry’s head, or rather, visions visited upon him by Voldemort, suggesting the young wizard can commit violence and take weird pleasure in it. The darkness also reframes the kiss, as one more indication of Harry’s troubled and troubling maturity.
An earlier indication comes in the first scene. Harry is, as he always is at the start of every film/novel, back at the Dursleys’, here, more specifically, in a park nearby with his cousin Dudley (Harry Melling). Harry’s only slightly perturbed by the bullying offered by a thuggish crew, taunts about his scar, scary nightmares, and general fretfulness (Muggles’ insults being mundane in any event). But he is visibly alarmed when the sky above them literally darkens. They are soon beset by Dementors and Harry takes wand action, forbidden in front of Muggles, of course. This leads directly to his next lesson in darkness and confusion about adults’ bad judgments, when he’s set before a tribunal and nearly expelled from Hogwarts.
The ostensible reason is that he has broken rules, but the real one is the official denial of Voldemort’s return. While the film doesn’t explain the politics of this denial, it does have a disturbing relevance to it, during our current reality-challenged wartime. As newspaper headlines and photos declare between episodes, Ministry of Magic head Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) insists that the battle is won, that Voldemort is nowhere — despite the fact that Harry has seen him and you have seen him seeing. This makes the Ministry, soon embodied at Hogwarts by its pink-adorned representative Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), look awfully out of touch, to the point of willful ignorance.
Harry seeks help for his own cause, but receives it only in bits, which is further disheartening. While Dumbledore argues for his continuing enrollment at Hogwarts, at school, the students are denied instruction in Defense Against the Dark Arts: snippy Umbridge teaches spells in a “secure, risk-free way,” insisting “Theoretical knowledge will be enough to get you through the examinations.” Such willful lack of preparedness inspires Harry to teach his fellows how to handle their wands. They do so under the name “Dumbledore’s Army,” inspired by Sirius’ revelation to Harry that he and other self-aware wizards — like Moody (Brendan Gleeson), Lupin (David Thewliss), and Snape (Alan Rickman) — have organized into the secret Order of the Phoenix, something of an “underground” at staid and rule-bound Hogwarts.
The adult Order members tacitly encourage Harry’s on-campus rebellion, though they won’t help overtly, leaving the students vulnerable to remonstrations from the increasingly odious and perfectly named Umbridge. Each day she issues new and narrow-minded proclamations of proper behavior, nailed into walls with loud hammering flourish. These allegedly support the Ministry’s credo, that “Security is our top priority,” but are plainly designed to shut down student interactions and innovations, leading “Dumbledore’s Army” under-equipped and under-prepared for this film’s not-so-climactic showdown at the Department of Mysteries.
While Order of the Phoenix focuses on the students’ dissidence as a means to some idealized maturation, it leaves most of this process to your imagination. With plot scattered and too many characters abandoned to brief walk-ons, the movie lacks forward momentum. While this underlines Harry’s persistent loss, it’s also left to you to surmise. Though he tells his students they need to know real-world applications (“Out there,” he warns, “When you’re a second away from being murdered or watching your friend die before your eyes… You don’t know what it’s like!”), his lessons appear mostly as pretty CGI-ed shorthands (to survive the Dementors, you must conjure “happy” thoughts, like bunnies and puppies). Dumbledore’s Army’s noisy, Star-Warsy confrontation with Voldemort’s Army (which includes Azkaban escapee Bellatrix Lestrange [Helena Bonham Carter]) mostly demonstrates the youngsters’ need for more training — in battle if nowhere else.
It is the kiss, so full of pain and pining, that resonates at last. To the film’s credit, Harry’s inevitable clash with Voldemort is less a matter of wands-as-light-sabers than Harry’s interior conflict. Decidedly unspectacular, his earnest writhing and (frankly underwhelming) digitally spooky eyes recalls the complexity of the kiss in more explicit terms. That the film leads Harry back round pretty much to where he started — dreading the return of Voldemort, only next time believed by his fellows and even stuffy Fudge — is a little tedious. But now at least he sees that the Dark Lord is not so simply his opposite. As Harry comes to see their affiliation, he also comes to see himself. And in so doing, he accepts a responsibility that too many adults do not.