Trouble never seems to end for Harry Potter, the orphaned boy wizard. In four previous films, he's whizzed in and out of crises -- just barely, it seems -- that ranged from the domestic to the magical to the mortal. His latest and ever-more-complicated travails comprise Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth of J.K. Rowling's popular seven-book series to make the magical leap to the big screen.
Harry's lifelong nemesis -- evil wizard Lord Voldemort -- has been restored to corporeal form, albeit minus a nose. But more than just Harry's peace of mind is coming unglued. Phoenix expands the story well beyond boarding-school dramas at Hogwarts, explicating the larger wizarding world, as well as the historical tensions that once divided it and are on the boil again. Voldemort's supporters are coalescing, while the Ministry of Magic has its head in the sand. Only a secret, ragtag group of London-based evil-busters, The Order of the Phoenix, led by Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore, is preparing for an impending war.
Meanwhile back at school, 15-year-old Harry is openly reviled for his assertion that Voldemort, long thought vanquished, has returned. The support of his best pals, Hermione and Ron, feels perfunctory, and previously trusted adults are ignoring him. It all leaves Harry feeling alone, angry, hurt and confused. (It's reminiscent of your adolescence, if you also had the most evil wizard ever on your ass.)
Harry's more pressing problem is Hogwarts' new Defense of the Dark Arts instructor, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, having a blast). Umbridge is a Ministry plant designed to squelch dissent, and her sickly-sweet, scary demeanor -- a Ladies Garden Auxiliary secretary with a fascistic streak -- is priceless. A nice set detail is her collection of decorative plates in which trapped kittens mewl, compositing Umbridge's cloying manner and her self-satisfiedly casual cruelty.
Once again, the British arthouse has been emptied into this flick, with more than a dozen of your favorite U.K. thespians onboard, including Michael Gambon, Gary Oldham and Julie Walters. Some merely get a line or two (just enough to keep their Potter Union card), but the best of them, such as Maggie Smith, simply command their few onscreen seconds. Alan Rickman, as the broody potions teacher Snape, makes his few words, acidly delivered, among the most delicious in the entire film.
Phoenix's emphasis on Harry's anguish and coming-of-age gives actor Daniel Radcliffe some room to stretch. (Unfortunately, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, as Harry's sidekicks get little to do here.) Over on the dark side, Ralph Fiennes seethes and cajoles, creating an impervious Voldermort who feels like not simply a bad guy, but a seductive, dangerous force.
The five Potter films seem to have had as many directors as Hogwarts has had Dark Arts instructors. Phoenix is directed by first-timer Peter Yates, a veteran of British television. The variety of directors has meant shifts in tone and style, almost guaranteed to excite some viewers while disappointing others. I most enjoyed the moodiness of the third film, Alfonso Cuarón's The Prisoner of Azkaban, and felt a more sophisticated style would have lent impact to the foreboding nature of Phoenix. Yates still finds time for many comic episodes, and I was especially distracted by the literal musical score that crashed during action, tinkled in comic scenes and soared whenever wizards took skyward.
Phoenix is the longest of Rowling's books, and after this film Potterheads can add another easy 20 minutes of fun debating what should or should not have been included in the truncated screenplay. I'd have preferred less mooning over magical creatures and more time with the Order and its history, as well as a better build-up to the final showdown.
As it is, Yates makes such a mad and frenetic dash to the conclusion, at the Ministry of Magic, that it is as if we'd suddenly apparated there ourselves. But once deep in the Ministry, Yates unleashes his best special-effects work, with a crash-bang wizard-on-wizard battle that's exciting even as we're not quite sure what's happening or why.
But these are minor quibbles about a seemingly impossible task: comprehensively satisfying Potter fans of all ages and stripes. In all, it's grand to visit with Harry and the gang again, embodied by a top-notch cast of actors; to see the boundaries of the magical world stretched beyond Hogwarts; and to settle deeper into the increasingly complicated and portentous story.
It's hard to recall the fifth iteration of any film that still felt so fresh and lively, but in that respect the Potter World is unique. It's a testament to the total package of source material that fans can jump into the abbreviated Film No. 5, two years after Film No. 4, all while kicking over every tiny detail of Book No. 6 in fevered anticipation of the imminent Book No. 7. (I wish Hollywood would note how even kids can juggle several vast complicated plots in their heads, and raise the bar on its usual dumbed-down kiddie fare.)
As of this writing, viewers have less than a week to search the film for clues to the final book's outcome. Hmmm -- the appearance in Phoenix of the house elf Kreacher seems suspiciously unnecessary ...