Paddington (2014)

PaddingtonWhen an English explorer embarks on an expedition to Darkest Peru he happens upon a new, sentient species of bear. Many years later — after an earthquake destroys their home in the hills — the now elderly bears dispatch a young descendant in search of him, to London where he instead meets Mr and Mrs Brown (Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, respectively) at Paddington Station. Named after the station, Paddington (Ben Whishaw) is adopted by the family until such time as either Mrs Brown can trace the explorer or Mr Brown can contact the relevant authority. At the Natural History Museum, meanwhile, taxidermist Millicent (Nicole Kidman) catches wind of the bear’s arrival and — aided by the Browns’ intolerant neighbour (Peter Capaldi) — makes the necessary preparations for her new exhibit.

Here’s a question for you: can you name a good British children’s movie. Just one. You can’t, can you? At least, not a recent one. OK, try this: name even an average British children’s movie? There’s no point scrutinising the past year for examples, anyway, for so far 2014 has only subjected the nation’s youngsters (and parents) to the torturous likes of Postman Pat: The Movie, Pudsey: The Movie and Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey. Cast your mind back further and you may recall the equally unendurable likes of Horrid Henry and All Stars. There are exceptions, of course — Son of Rambow and Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists, to name just two — but it’s relatively rare you see a British children’s movie you can actually be proud of.

The man with the best track record is perhaps David Heyman, producer of the Harry Potter films. While financed overseas it is one of the most thoroughly British series of movies imaginable, shot in the United Kingdom and starring a predominantly British cast; and not only did all eight of them play well here but they were embraced the world over, too. Therefore, when Heyman announced that he was to return to the genre post-Gravity with another adaptation — this time of Michael Bond’s ‘Paddington Bear’ books — one couldn’t help but feel a certain level of cautious optimism. If anyone could help to craft a good movie from a quaint, half-forgotten children’s TV character it would be him. Even if it was co-written by the man responsible for Mr Bean’s Holiday.

And he has, undoubtedly, helped to craft a good movie. Director Paul King — in only his second feature film, after Bunny and the Bull — has reimagined Paddington for the 21st Century, remaining faithful to Bond’s original stories while also making the character relevant to today’s audience — and not, like Postman Pat director Mike Disa, by having him participate in Britain’s Got Talent and battle an army of killer robot doppelgangers. Part of that is of course achieved by presenting the character in a manner acceptable to today’s children, those weaned on Pixar and superhero movies — and Framestore have done a terrific job of animating him, proving cries of Scary, Sleazy Paddington to be unfounded — but more than that it’s King’s recognition that London needs updating too which sets the film apart.

Originally conceived in the wake of World War II, when Bond found a lone (toy) bear for sale in a London train station, Paddington embodied a generation of children evacuated from their war-torn homes and adopted by foster families the country over — an idea that is still central to the movie, as it informs Paddington’s preconceptions of the nation while forming the basis of his aunt’s decision to send him there in the first place. It’s no longer British children who are in need of asylum, however, and realising this King has found a new but no less deserving part of the population for Paddington to represent: refugees. At a time when the British government is clamping down on immigration and nationalism is growing in popularity it takes a foreign member of a separate species to come over here, eat all of our preserves and remind us what it really means to be British.

Not only is Paddington an important movie, then, but it’s also an entertaining one, too. The film has a terrifically British sense of humour, combining the kind of cross-dressing silliness you’d expect from something like Monty Python with the sort of visual gags more commonly associated with Aardman. It’s also witty, with the likes of Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, Nicole Kidman and Peter Capaldi proving excellent sparring partners, and surreal, recalling its director’s own work on The Mighty Boosh. Ultimately, however, the film belongs to Ben Whishaw — who took over from Colin Firth when the latter left the project earlier this year. Prim, polite and very proper, Whishaw also has fun with the grunts and glottal stops that belie Paddington’s jungle origins. For an actor who has so far thrived on relatively adult roles — impressing in Cloud Atlas and Brideshead Revisited — it’s great to see him prove equally adept at something accessible to all.

As welcome as the film’s liberal, egalitatian ethos is, however, you can’t help but wonder if King might have done more to embrace it himself. As nice as it is to see Jim Broadbent or Julie Walters in the supporting cast, the decision to use English actors in international (and regional) roles is a strange one given the message, and sort of undermines the idea that anyone might come to London and call themselves a Londoner — or to Paddington Station and appear in a Paddington bear movie. That said, ridiculous accents have long been a tradition in sketch comedy, and it’s undoubtedly a small quibble with an otherwise unimpeachable success story. Paddington should be toasted — and coated generously with marmalade should he ask for it.

4-Stars

 

 

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Pride (2014)

PrideIt’s 1984, and Mark (Ben Schnetzer), Mike (Joseph Gilgun), Steph (Faye Marsay), Jeff (Freddie Fox) and Joe (George Mckay) have descended on London for Gay Pride. From their base of operations at Gethin (Andrew Scott) and Jonathan’s (Dominic West) LGBT book shop, they decide to this year campaign not for themselves but for the striking miners in Wales. Naming themselves Lesbians and Gays Support Miners, they set out in search of a community willing to accept their support. Having made arrangements with Dai (Paddy Considine), they head west to Onllwyn to meet some of the people worst hit by Thatcher’s Tory government. While the town council — including Hefina (Imelda Staunton), Cliff (Bill Nighy) and Sian (Jessica Gunning) — are happy to see them, however, they have a harder time convincing the miners to accept their offer of not just assistance but friendship.

There have been many unlikely political pairings in British history — the current coalition government for one, and the Green Party’s recent alliance with the Scottish Yes campaign for another — but easily the most unexpected has to be the real-life alliance of gay activists with the Welsh mining unions. What’s perhaps most remarkable about the story of Mark Ashton and his 80s cause — Lesbians and Gays Support Minors — is not that it happened but that we’re only hearing about it now. Now largely forgotten, the relationship nevertheless had wide-reaching consequences for both sides, changing the lives of not only the individuals involved but contributing to a larger change as well. This is a film about solidarity, about collaboration and putting others before yourself. And it couldn’t be more timely.

Of course, being a British film with home-grown “issues” at its heart, there was every chance that Matthew Warchus’ film could have been unbearable. It might easily have been patronising, preachy, or sentimental, and ran the very real risk of alienating people on both sides — not just homosexuals and blue-collar workers, but the Welsh and the English too. As it happens, however, Pride does no such thing. It’s fun and funny, but not at the expense of the drama, while the film manages to address HIV and media-lead hate campaigns without letting them unbalance the narrative or compromise the tone. After a surprisingly successful evening at the local working men’s club, a man is asked by his wife if he was really expecting there to be a scene: “sometimes”, he admits, “people surprise you”. As does British cinema.

The cast are flawless throughout — thesps and newcomers alike are clearly determined to do the incredible story justice. Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy (the latter reviving his accent from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) bring incredible warmth and dignity to the town council, while Jessica Gunning almost runs away with the movie as their newest no-nonsense member, Sian. Each has their own comic moments, but you are never invited to laugh at them because they are Welsh, though their language’s lack of vowels isn’t above comment. Even then, however, the Welsh language is behind one of the film’s most emotional scenes, as exiled Welsh expat Gethin is wished Merry Christmas in his native tongue for the first time in years. Andrew Scott, like everyone else, is excellent.

The characters with the most pronounced arcs, however, hail from London — or, in the case of leader Mark, from Ireland. Dominic West’s Jonathan has become disillusioned with activism, Faye Marsay’s Steph is caught between causes and George McKay’s Joe is in the closet and lying to his parents. It’s another impressive performance from McKay, who has already made something of a name for himself as a daring actor with diverse turns in last year’s hat-trick of How I Live Now, For Those In Peril and Sunshine on Leith. There are some great supporting performances too, from Harry Potter‘s Jessie Cave and The Three Musketeers‘ Freddie Fox. The film ultimately belongs to Ben Schnetzer, however, last seen as Max Vandenburg in The Book Thief, though you’ll never recognise him as the same actor. He’s effervescent, and when he disappears somewhat abruptly in the third act the film is poorer for it.

Pride isn’t perfect; it’s a little long, there are maybe too many characters and does lack a consistent pace but the story is so compelling that you forgive it the occasional lull. Released within days of the Scottish referendum, the film should give everyone an opportunity to celebrate the United Kingdom and its remarkable shared history while they still can.

4-Stars

 

Maleficent (2014)

MaleficentWhen Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) falls for Stefan (Sharlto Copley), it seems that the human and fairy realms might finally exist together in harmony. Unfortunately, Stefan is corrupted by the power promised to him by King Henry, and severs Maleficent’s wings in order to prove himself worthy of the throne. Maleficent craves revenge, and curses Stefan’s firstborn daughter to eternal sleep on her sixteenth birthday. Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) is hidden away by the new king, entrusted to a trio of good fairies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) who promise to protect her until the curse has lifted. They prove incapable of raising the child, however, and Maleficent begins to take pity on her. Together with her raven sidekick (Sam Riley), Maleficent watches over the child, even befriending her when she comes of age. Even she if unable to lift the spell, however, having only included a single loophole: true love’s kiss. For this she must employ the help of Prince Philip (Brenton Thwaites), who met Aurora only hours before the curse took effect.

Though not without its old-fashioned charms, Sleeping Beauty was never one of Walt Disney’s best fairy tale films. The likes of Snow White, Cinderella and Ariel have enchanted little girls for decades, whereas Princess Aurora hasn’t had quite the same enduring appeal. Now, especially, with the likes of Tangled and Frozen telling audiences to be strong and independent, the story of a sleeping sixteen-year-old waiting to be saved by true love’s first kiss seems not just quaint but backwards. With Disney revisiting its classics for a series of live-action remakes the time seemed right for a 21st Century makeover, doing for Aurora what Alice in Wonderland and Snow White and the Huntsman had done for her peers. Maleficent had always been the most interesting character in Sleeping Beauty, and the studio’s decision to focus on the villain with Angelina Jolie in the leading role was met with intrigue and excitement.

The problem, however, was that neither Alice in Wonderland nor Snow White and the Huntsman were any good. Disney seemed unable to distance itself from its own source material, and rather than brave new imaginings what audiences received instead were hollow retreads of past glories. Big-name casts, impressive special effects and epic final battles were no substitute for the timeless magic of the earlier films, and Maleficent does almost nothing to buck this trend. The truth is that Shrek (DreamWorks) and Enchanted (developed outwith the studio before being bought by Disney) did more to shake up the traditional princess formula than any of these film-specific remakes, with the latter in particular already providing a modern update of the character in the form of Susan Sarandon’s despicable Queen Narissa. Rather than redefine Maleficient, Robert Stromberg’s film undermines her.

There was great potential for a deliciously dark comedy chronicling the ultimately doomed attempts of Maleficent to exact her revenge on King Stefan and his daughter (think Catwoman in Batman Returns or Winifred Sanderson in Disney’s own Hocus Pocus) — and there are occasional glimpses of it in Jolie’s occasionally remarkable performance. Her initial disdain for children and reaction to Aurora mistaking her for a fairy godmother are indeed smirk-worthy, but for the most part the actress is wasted on drab dialogue and repetitive scenes of shadowy sulking, which is a shame because she at least looks the part. The film robs her of her villainy, and by extension her place in the narrative; we are told through endless voiceover that Maleficent really isn’t so bad, and that she in fact regrets cursing the girl almost from the moment she does it. She then spends the rest of the movie nurturing the princess, trying to save her from her own curse. If Sleeping Beauty denied Aurora her agency, this film does the same for Maleficent.

As a result Maleficent doesn’t have a story to tell — no momentum, no stakes. Not that that has stopped Stromberg, who somehow manages to fill 97 minutes with…well, filler. The film takes place over approximately thirty years; for some reason we are introduced to Maleficent in her own childhood, decades before the original story started, in order to watch Maleficent fall in and out of love. You’ve already lost patience with it by the time Aurora is born, and even then it’s sixteen years before the curse kicks into effect and the drama really begins. Ostensibly a children’s film, audiences spend most of their time watching adults sulk; yet the film is far too immature and innocent to appeal to parents. When the story finally shifts to young lovers-at-first-sight Elle Fanning and Brenton Thwaites it is almost at its end, and both are quickly sidelined once more so that Jolie can have her final showdown with Sharlto Copley’s King Stefan.

Considering this is a project that has been in development since at least 2011, Maleficent is an incoherent mess. I don’t know who the continuity advisor was, or if the film even had one, but at times it’s almost impossible to understand what’s going on. Aurora is swept between the human and fairy worlds for apparently no reason, Maleficent switches costumes almost with every edit and Prince Philip disappears and reappears as if at random. What is Maleficent trying to do? Who is this movie for? What on earth is going on? If the filmmakers don’t know after three years of development, how do they expect viewers to work it out in 97 minutes — however long they seem to last. One thing’s for certain: it’s not just Aurora who Maleficent will have regretfully put to sleep.

2-stars

 

The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! (2012)

Like all good pirates, The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) is completely useless, but that doesn’t stop him and his motley crew of sea cucumber-alikes, walking coat-hangers and fish in hats from entering Pirate of the Year, the seven seas’ most coveted prize for budding buccaneers. Up against the likes of Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven), Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Peg-Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), The Pirate Captain finds himself out-gunned and out-looted as he is forced to consider other ways of claiming the title. When an encounter with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) aboard a sinking Beagle alerts him to the value of his not-a-parrot pet dodo, The Pirate Captain plans to use his promised scientific riches to finally win the prize. That’s if a crusading Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) doesn’t catch them first.

After experimenting with digimation in last year’s absolutely lovely Arthur Christmas (and, er, 2006’s  not-so-lovely Flushed Away), Aardman Animation return to their humble, stop-motion beginnings in the vein of earlier classics Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Thumb-prints firmly reinstated, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! adapts the first two instalments in Gideon Defoe’s acclaimed series of children’s books for the big screen. Given its subject matter and child-friendly tone, immediate comparisons with Disney’s live-action Pirates of the Caribbean franchise are perhaps inevitable.

Inevitable but unnecessary, it seems, as The Pirates! couldn’t be more different from its Caribbean forebears; childishly simple, consistently witty and effortlessly charming, Aardman’s trademark stamp of quality instantly marks it apart from the convoluted, humourless tangle of faceless plotpoints that Pirates of the Caribbean has become infamous for. Boasting the depth of humour and attention to detail that makes Aardman releases so inherently rewatchable, The Pirates! is a joy for all ages, from beginning to end, not unlike February’s similarly delightful The Muppets.

Written by Defoe himself, The Pirates! is an absolute treasure trove of sharp, smart wit and ridiculous asides, picking and choosing only the best lines from his source novel, leaving just enough room for the talented voice-cast to stretch their comedic muscles. The dialogue, erudite and quotable as it may be, is still only half of the story, with the true joy of any Aardman animation being the painstakingly perfected sight-gags that pepper just about every scene, lying in wait of their inevitable discovery, even if its not until the second or third viewing. With the astonishing amount of work that goes into even the slightest of interactions (the film itself took approximately five years to finish), the filmmakers by now have slapstick down to a fine art.

With so much on offer it might seem a little ungrateful to be left still wanting more. There are so many fantastic characters worthy of attention that a great number unfortunately find themselves sidelined as the filmmakers focus on Hugh Grant’s admittedly brilliant Pirate Captain. Every moment that’s not packed with pithy rapport and ingenious Easter eggs – and, I can’t believe I’m even complaining about this, there are a few – seems wasted, the genteel musings a couple of soiled pants short of comedy gold, while the likes of Salma Hayek and Lenny Henry are squandered in the merest scattering of scenes. With talk of a sequel and a handful of books yet to adapt, however, there is a very good chance that this might one day be put right.

Another classic from the British masters of animation, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! is everything you could possibly wish from Aardman Animation and more. As with The Muppets, however, such ageless charm seems to have come at a price, with the appreciative smile adorning audience’s faces rarely developing into the hysterical laughter that the premise perhaps deserves.

The Awakening (2011)

A rationalist by profession, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) has made a career out of investigating fraudulent spiritualists (aka. all of them), much to the chagrin of both the supposed mediums themselves and those depending on such lies for their own peace of mind. When she is called out to Rookwood, a remote boy’s boarding school based in Cumbria, by resident housemaster Robert Mallory (Dominic West), Florence utilised her usual methods and equipment in the hope of unmasking the student responsible for a set of alleged ghost sightings. With this particular poltergeist eventually proving more elusive than most, however, it might just be that Florence has finally found what she’s looking for.

Film: Much in the same vein as The Others and this year’s The Woman In Black, this stately horror aims to match its genre chills with a quality and dignity that can only be achieved with the right actors. Début director Nick Murphy has accrued an accomplished cast, with the ever-dependable Rebecca Hall taking centre stage as the conflicted sceptic, struggling to come to terms with the death of her fiancée. A respectable, professional woman at a time when such a thing was almost unheard of, she excels as the restrained and reluctant Florence Cathcart. As the true nature of the adolescent apparition begins to unravel through her investigations, she stands strong even as the story itself begins to fall apart.

Florence’s relative novelty (it is 1921, after all) is perhaps best exampled when opposite the equally compelling Imelda Staunton, the school’s matron and Florence’s ever-present admirer, who seems positively giddy by her hero’s presence. Dominic West (of John Carter and TV’s excellent The Hour), meanwhile, brings a stoic resilience to his battle-hardened veteran, Robert Mallory, a man who doesn’t know what to think after the suppressed horror of World War I. Even when the ghost is nowhere to be seen (or felt), the chemistry between these variously damaged characters is enough to keep you planted firmly on the edge of your seat. Like, in some respects, Super 8, it’s almost a shame that the plot has to kick in, as it’s such a pleasure spending time with these characters in what might merely amount to a day at the office.

But kick in it does, and as the momentum begins to gather even the slightest cineliteracy begins to prepare audiences for the various hackneyed clichés open to Murphy as he tries to tie up his assorted loose ends. The film that The Awakening’s setting and subject most resemble is perhaps Guillermo Del Toro’s outstanding The Devil’s Backbone, a comparison that sadly doesn’t stand up. Without wishing to give anything away, the film aims for a resolution that falls somewhere between a shocking twist and a sense of haunting inevitability. In taking it too far, however, the film inadvertently and unfortunately lunges into ridiculousness as the carefully orchestrated and maintained atmosphere is sadly frittered away.

Extras: While both formats offer an insightful audio commentary with writer-director Nick Murphy, a detailed glimpse behind the scenes, an exploration of post-war Britain titled A Time For Ghosts and the film’s trailer, the Blu-ray comes outfitted with a wider range of special features. Among them: an extensive interview with the film’s director addressing his intentions and the complexities of filmmaking; an array of occasionally interesting deleted scenes that were removed for pacing reasons (including a park scene even the director was glad to be rid of); the anatomy of one of the film’s key scenes involving Florence and a lake; a discussion by the film’s cast about their own approaches to the supernatural; and a further Q&A session from BAFTA. The Awakening is yours to own on DVD and Blu-ray from March 26th, 2012.

Arthur Christmas (2011)

With Christmas having been progressively militarised by Steven Claus (Hugh Laurie) in his figurehead father’s (Jim Broadbent) growing laziness, the magic of Christmas is under threat as presents are dispassionately delivered by diligent, absailing elves aboard a giant aircraft instead of by Santa in his trusty sleigh. When a child is missed and left presentless, lost in the operation’s margin of error, the forever festive Arthur Claus (James McAvoy) takes matters into his own hands, recruiting the elderly Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and endeavouring to deliver the child’s present using the old man’s archaic sled, Evie, along with one of his sole remaining reindeer and gift-wrapper extraordinaire Bryony (Ashley Jensen). Unfortunately, their crude equipment and the lateness of the hour leads to a number of sightings and their mission is mistaken by for an alien invasion. With the world’s armed forces in hot pursuit, Steven and Clause Senior must put aside their dispute about the future of the Santa brand and help Arthur before it is too late.

Following last year’s Finnish tale of feral Santamen who slay reindeer and punish naughty children, it is a bit of a relief to return to more traditional fare with an animated comedy about a good-natured misfit who just wants a perfect Christmas for all. The first CGI film from Aardman, Arthur Christmas treats the Santa myth with mock seriousness as it tries to put a decidedly British spin on a character who has to date largely been played by Americans. A note perfect voice over from Outnumbered‘s Ramona Marquez sets the scene beautifully as her character enquires as to Santa’s means of accomodating population growth and why his headquarters do not appear on Google Earth, hinting at the Aardman’s own quality that we are about to enjoy.

The voice cast is quite simply sublime, with the dulcet tones of Imelda Staunton, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Palin, Eva Longoria,  Andy Serkis, Dominic West and Joan Cusack filling out an ensemble that prove just as effective as the Claus’ they support. It is the unbeatable combination of Bill Nighy’s senile curmudgeon, Jim Broadbent’s out-of-touch has-been, Hugh Laurie’s ambitious commander and Ashley Jensen’s rookie elf that ultimately steals the show, however, with only McAvoy struggling to keep the eponymous Arthur on just the right side of annoying.

Like any Aardman production, however, it is the attention to detail and keen wit that sets the movie a Wallace and Gromit apart from the competition. With the exception of a clunky extra-terrestrial subplot, the film rattles along at an astounding pace as the visuals delight and the wordplay engages, both parents and children able to enjoy the jokes as equals. Gently mocking everything from Toronto, to alien-fearing Americans, to Christmas itself, the gags come thick and fast as the studio’s genius is put to reliably good use. The film’s message about the sterility of technology, however, might have been more effective had this not marked Aardman’s controversial embrace of computer generated 3D.

Although some may miss the nostalgic thumb-prints, there is no denying that this isn’t classic Aardman at its best.  Though the narrative may lose its way towards the film’s bloated mid-section, all involved regroup with such gusto for the inspired resolution that any earlier fumblings couldn’t be further from your mind. Witty, clever, and yet wonderfully absurd, Arthur Christmas is a very welcome addition to the Christmas film cannon.

Hogwarts Revisited – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

On the fifteenth of July, 2011, the highest grossing film franchise ever will finally come to an end. Spanning ten years, eight movies, four directors and a worldwide box-office gross of over six billion dollars – the Harry Potter film franchise will draw to a close with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, as Harry faces off against He Who Must Not Be Named for the very last time.

So, without further ado, previously on Harry Potter…

Using Cedric Diggory’s death as an excuse to plant one of their own in Hogwarts, The Ministry of Magic exerts its influence over the school with the instigation of Delores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as High Inquisitor. Convinced that Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) has not in fact returned and that Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) was lying in an attempt to undermine the minister, Cornelius Fudge – through the Daily Prophet – has begun a smear campaign aimed at sullying the names of the headmaster and his poster boy, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). When Umbridge bans the use of spells in lessons, fearful that Dumbledore is trying to amass and train an army, Harry must take matters in his own hands if he is to prepare his classmates for the Dark Lord’s return. Dubbing themselves Dumbledore’s Army, Harry and his peers use the castle’s Room of Requirement to train themselves in an array of useful spells.

Caught in the act by Umbridge, Dumbledore takes the blame for the organization and escapes arrest leaving the High Inquisitor in charge. Envisioning his godfather Sirius’ (Gary Oldman) capture and torture at the hands of Voldermort, Harry convinces Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) to accompany him to London to rescue him. Stopped again by Umbridge, threatened with the Cruciatus Curse if he doesn’t come clean about his plans, Harry and Hermione conspire to lead her into the Forbidden Forest under the pretense of showing her Dumbledore’s “secret weapon”. Instead leading her to Hagrid’s enormous half-brother, Grawp, they escape back to the castle where they regroup with Ron and Ginny (Bonnie Wright), along with Neville (Matthew Lewis) and Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch). Arriving at the Ministry only to discover Harry’s visions a ruse, the students are ambushed by Death Eaters, who need Harry in order to retrieve a prophesy for Voldermort. Saved by Dumbledore and the newly reformed Order of the Phoenix, a force for good which fought Voldermort the last time he rose to power,  there is no longer any denying that Voldermort is back and more powerful than ever.

Having inherited the thickest book in the series when Mike Newell left after Goblet of Fire, David Yates was left no option but to trim everything but the core narrative, laving Steve Kloves’ temporary replacement as screenwriter Michael Goldenberg no option but to rise to the challenge. Gone is Lockheart’s cameo (and the subsequent introduction to Neville’s parents), the Quibbler subplot and much of the finale, with Yates ultimately responsible for one of the most abridged adaptations of the series.  However, although I may be more disappointed than most to see these scenes go – Order of the Pheonix will always be my favourite book – even I have to admit that the resultant movie isn’t a total disaster.

Imelda Staunton is absolutely phenomenal as Delores Umbridge, proving every bit as hateful and churlish as Rowling’s written equivalent. Dressed entirely in pink and with a monstrous mean-streak, Umbridge’s brand of subdued villainy is a welcome alternative to Voldermort’s maniacal evil. When Voldermort does enter the fray, however, he doesn’t disappoint, no small feat considering the excellent handling of his introduction in Goblet of Fire. The climactic battle between Dumbledore and Voldermort is absolutely breathtaking, the increased roles enjoyed by the supporting cast finally giving them something to get their teeth – and wand arms – into.

Daniel Radcliffe meanwhile has the difficult task of treading teenage angst without stumbling into more arrogant or petulant territory. Considering just how unlikeable Harry could have appeared, it is to the actor’s credit that he never lets the hormones win. He duly rises to the role of mentor, the scenes set in the Room of Requirement steeped in authority and control – his kiss with Cho Chang beautifully handled as mistletoe springs from the ceiling. Cheesy, yes, but undeniably sweet and charming too. Quizzed on the experience by Ron and Hermione, it is genuinely delightful to take a moments break from the action and exposition to glimpse just why these three people have stuck together despite the considerable danger their friendship puts them in.

With war looming the wizarding world really comes into its own. While Luna’s unique brand of comic relief ensures that it’s not all doom and gloom, the introduction of Bellatrix LeStrange and the reformation of the Order of the Phoenix really example the depth and intricacy of Rowling’s extraordinary vision. Bonham Carter’s stunning performance – particularly the scene in which she greets Neville Longbottom almost as an old friend (she tortured his parents into insanity) – really forces you to sit up and take stock of the mythology’s burgeoning maturity. The last act’s infamous fatality – and the devastating effect it has on Harry – is so fraught with emotion that it is easy to forget that this is a saga that started out with Nimus 2000s and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.

While I might gripe at a few duff notes from Kathryn Hunter’s Mrs. Figg, a heavily abridged finale which leaves most with little to do and – in my opinion – the miscasting of Evanna Lynch as Loopy Lovegood, these are the arbitrary complaints of a fastidious fanboy. What David Yates has done – and will continue to do throughout the rest of his tenure as director – is take the phenomenal foundations laid by Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell and build an immersive experience the likes of which have rarely been seen. Despite whatever acting shortcomings, Radcliffe, Grint and Watson have become their characters, and it’s fantastic to see how the trio might interact when they’re not sitting in class or dodging three-headed dogs.