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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix the fifth movie in the series, begins, as most of the others have, with a spot of unpleasantness at the Dursleys, and ends with Harry facing down Lord Voldemort. The climactic duel between the young brave wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) and the Dark Lord (Ralph Fiennes) foreshadows the final, perhaps fatal battle we all suspect is coming in Book Seven.
Anticipation of that event may be stealing some thunder from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix film — a rare instance of the book business overshadowing Hollywood at its own hype-producing game — but between now and publication day, Potter fans can take some satisfaction in a witty, swift and intriguing adaptation of J. K. Rowling’s longest book to date. Devotees of fine British acting, at the same time, can admire the addition of Imelda Staunton (an Oscar nominee for “Vera Drake”) to the roster of first-rate thespians moonlighting as Hogwarts faculty.
Curiously enough, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix movie lasting for a little over two and a quarter hours, is the shortest run of the Harry Potter movies. The nearly 900-page source material has been gracefully streamlined by Michael Goldenberg, the screenwriter (replacing Steve Kloves), and David Yates, the director (who follows Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell’s footsteps in the job). No Quidditch is featured, and not a lot of boarding-school diversions.
Instead, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix which starts off like a horror movie with a Dementor struck in a suburban underpass, unfolds as a tense and dark political thriller, with clandestine meetings, bureaucratic skullduggery and intimations of conspiracy hanging in the air.
Mr. Yates, whose work in the past has primarily been in television, is best known in Britain for “State of Play,” an astounding mini-series involving power, corruption and deceit. Those are among the themes he engages in this movie, which draws a wizard world riven by factionalism and threatened by turmoil and inflexible authoritarianism.
While Cornelius Fudge, the magic minister (Robert Hardy), insists his highly suspect denial of Voldemort’s return, a coup at Hogwarts menaces the benevolent administration of Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). Potter, meanwhile, has fallen from prince to pariah, smeared in the magical press (at which his name is rendered “Harry Plotter”) and faces cold stares and whispers at school. Back in Potter’s early days at Hogwarts school, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), Harry’s foil and averse ally, sneered at the young boy’s “celebrity.” But in this episode, the boy — if you can still call him that — encounters the darker side of fame.
Some of his schoolmates suspect his account of the death of Cedric Diggory, who was killed by dark lord Voldemort at the end of the previous entry, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” Dumbledore, Harry’s chief patron and protector over the years, seems to be keeping his distance, which leaves Harry feeling abandoned and betrayed. Moreover, the pressures of being a designated hero — and perhaps martyr — have started to weigh on Harry, to separate him from friends and to come between him and the possibility of an ordinary teenage life.
He does, for the very least, experience a first kiss with Cho Chang (Katie Leung), but that turns out to be a short and equivocal moment of joy. Whereas “Goblet of Fire” threw Harry and his friends into the murky waters of awakening adolescent sexuality (or at least got their toes dipped in), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix tackles the emotional chaos that can buffet young folks on their way to adulthood. Mr. Radcliffe, maturing as an actor in perfect time with his character, emphasizes Harry’s anger and self-pity. Mr. Yates frequently places him alone on one side of the frame, with Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson), his loyal but increasingly estranged friends, together on the other.
But this is not an Ingmar Bergman movie, although Mr. Bergman can probably be coaxed into service for the movie adaption of Deathly Hallows the final book of the saga. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has its dark, twisty elements, but it is also, after all, a movie in a mighty multimedia entertainment series. And like its previous entries, it succeeds at being a piece of entertainment without quite fulfilling its potential as a film.
Perhaps by design, Harry Potter movies never quite live up to the novels. This installment proves to be absorbing but not transporting, a collection of intriguing moments rather than a fully integrated dramatic ride. This is just probably a consequence of the important open-endedness of the narrative, or of a reasonable desire not to alienate “Potter” readers by taking too many cinematic chances.
Yes, “Order of the Phoenix” is not actually a great film, but it is a pretty good one, partly because it does not strain to overwhelm the audience with sound and sensation. There are some stunning special-effects-aided set pieces — especially an early broomstick flight over London — and some that are not that great.
People waving wands at each other, even coupled by bright lights and scary sounds, does not quite satisfy this moviegoer’s thirst for action. But the production design (by Stuart Craig) and the cinematography (by Slawomir Idziak) are frequently astonishing in their aptness and sophistication. The interiors of the Ministry of Magic provoke a witty, menacing vision of wizardly bureaucracy, while Harry’s anxiety and loneliness register in Mr. Idziak’s cold, washed-out shades of blue.
The scariest color in his palette, however, turns out to be pink. That is the color loved by Dolores Umbridge (Ms. Staunton), whose cheery English-auntie look hides a ruthlessly autocratic temperament. She posts proclamations on the Hogwarts walls, subjects those who against her to painful punishments and substitutes book learning for practical magic. Her intention is to teach Minister Fudge’s head-in-the-sand policy with respect to the Voldemort threat, and she does a hell of a job.
Ms. Staunton joins a brilliant group of serious actors who, in the best British tradition, refuse to lower themselves before the material, earning their paychecks and the gratitude of the grown-ups in the audience. Mr. Rickman has turned Snape (whose animus against Harry is in part explained here) into one of the most interestingly ambiguous characters in modern films, and it is always nice to see the likes of Emma Thompson, David Thewlis and Gary Oldman, even if it’s briefly.
Even better, the Potter enterprise has become a breeding ground for the next generation of British acting talent. Mr. Radcliffe has already spread his wings (and dropped his pants) on the London stage, and cultural pessimists of my generation can take comfort in knowing that while our parents may have witnessed Malcolm McDowell and Julie Christie in their prime, our children will see Mr. Grint and Ms. Watson in theirs. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix film also features for the first time Evanna Lynch, a pale-skinned, wide-eyed 15-year-old non-pro from Ireland who, having read the novel, decided that no one else but her could nail the role of Luna Lovegood, the weirdest witch at Hogwarts. It seems Ms. Lynch was right. She’s spellbinding.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). The film’s violence is intense, but not graphic, and some of its images are quite thrilling.
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