(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Maggie Smith, and Gary Oldman
Directed by: David Yates
Running time: 138 minutes
Year of release: 2007
The confirmation of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education last week – over the protests of anyone who’s ever been within shouting distance of an actual school – invoked an easy meme-ridden comparison. Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), erstwhile villainess of the Harry Potter saga and second only to Voldemort himself in terms of pure unfiltered loathsomeness, became the easy stand-in for the appointment. And why not? Author J.K. Rowling clearly knew a totalitarian regime when she saw one, and never hesitated to call out the toadies and enablers along with her big baddie. Few of them were as hated (in the best possible way) as Umbridge.
The reasons for that hate should sound familiar. Not just because she’s an authority figure (because who doesn’t hate those?), or even her overt abuse of authority (no shortage of bad guys in that camp). It comes, I think, from her eager embrace of gaslighting and denial.
It starts with her appearance, which marks a huge departure from the book. Rowling described her as hideously ugly, a sort of Peter Lorre in drag whose very presence set the skin a’ crawling. Staunton’s a lovely woman, with a natural smile and a look of supreme benevolence. She appears at Hogwarts in her Jackie-O pink and her collectible plates with kittens on them, all good cheer and tough love delivered with a Mary Poppins giggle. Who wouldn’t want a teacher like that?
Soon enough, of course, she shows her true colors… though only after she’s amassed enough power to make them stick. Students learn useless magic, draconian rules are put into place with no apparent point, and protests and attempts to question her efforts are silenced with ruthless efficiency. Before we know it, the friendly confines of Hogwart’s have descended into Orwellian nightmare.
And yet the cheerfulness remains: Umbridge’s weapon against all manner of challenges. Of course she’s not the eager quisling of the force of ultimate evil! Of course she’s looking after the welfare of ALL the students at Hogwarts! Provided they follow the rules. And ignore the bullying of other professors and students. And jump when she says frog. And…
By watching what she says and comparing it to what she does, the cognitive dissonance becomes too great to ignore. It prompts Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends to form Dumbledore’s Army and ultimately take her down (with a little help from the local centaurs). We’ve seen her methodology find all-too-fertile ground in the real world: how people in power demand that you ignore what’s right in front of your eyes in favor of absolute obedience. Staunton’s Napoleonic stature helps sell it (the showdown between her and Maggie Smith’s considerably taller Professor McGonagall stands as a series high point), but it’s her subtle distinction between appearance and reality that make her such an evil joy to watch.
In my original review of the film, I opined that it marked time a bit, stretching the saga out while waiting for the final throwdown with Lord Voldemort. In retrospect, that may have been unfair. Rowling understood that great evil depends on little evil to grow, and while Voldemort constitutes raw power wielded solely for the purpose of domination, Umbridge plays in political gray areas. She thrives on questions and doubts, on ambiguity and uncertainty. She’s far from the most powerful wizard in this world, but she proves masterful at arguing people out of their best instincts. Those inclined to cruelty flock to her side, but she truly revels in better men and women sufficiently flummoxed to let her enact her agenda over them.
By the time she reveals her true intentions, it’s all but too late. Luckily, Harry and his pals stop her before they can properly attack Voldemort… thanks to waking up to her little reindeer games early on. Rowling understood the need for preventative action, as well as the power that concentrated resistance can wield when it shakes clear of doubt and double-talk. Harry needs to learn how to deal with such foes before the saga can come to an end. But while Order of the Phoenix ultimately allows him a bit of hard-earned wisdom – purchased at great cost – Harry probably isn’t Umbridge’s most tenacious foe. That honor belongs to Fred and George Weasley (James and Oliver Phelps), the school’s resident pranksters who recognize when their moment has come. Humor and ridicule help disperse that noxious cloud and show up the paper tyrant for what she truly is.
It makes a great blueprint for challenging authority, though Umbridge returns in the series finale still holding onto the pretense of legal authority. Even her final fate, however, demonstrates Rowling’s insight not only into bullying, but into a truly fitting form of justice for it. At the beginning of the film, Harry’s monstrous cousin Dudley (Harry Melling) tangles with a Dementor, and is shown (to paraphrase the author) who he truly is for the first time. Forced to confront the real consequences of his actions, he changes for the better, and considering where Staunton’s smiling sociopath ends up once the dust has settled, we can assume a similarly befitting fate ultimately lies in wait for her.
That’s the problem with reality: there’s never a Dementor around when you need one.