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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix   B-

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: David Yates
Writer: Michael Goldenberg (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling)
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Ralph Fiennes, Jason Isaacs, Katie Leung, Evanna Lynch, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter.

Review by Rob Vaux
"Get on with it!!!"
--Assembled Cast, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Did J.K Rowling bite off more than she could chew with the Harry Potter series? Did she commit to seven books with a story that could only fit five? There are times in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when it certainly seems that way. The previous entry, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, finally set things up for a big showdown with the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). But we still have three chapters to go until then, and the stress of marking time is really starting to show -- ironic considering how much the movies have compacted the events of the books. Order of the Phoenix thus feels at once sketchy and overstuffed: struggling to fill its allotted space while simultaneously too deluged with details to linger for more than a moment or two.

Luckily, it still has some pretty big guns in its corner, not the least of which is the universe itself. The richness of Rowling's vision shows no signs of abating -- every nook and cranny filled with new wonders to enthrall us. Order of the Phoenix capitalizes on that both in terms of imagery and in overall tone, which has never been darker or more troubling. For the first time in the film series, we get a serious look at the world beyond Hogwarts School of Wizardry: the world that Harry and his friends are preparing for, but which has only fitfully intruded upon their ivory tower until now. Director David Yates spends the first third of the film embroiling us in the vaunted Ministry of Magic, where young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is taken after using an unauthorized spell to save himself and his cousin Dudley (Harry Melling) from a fate worse than death. The splendid visuals of the Ministry building encompass an ominous mixture of political machinations, yellow journalism, and inquisitorial scapegoating: horrid grown-up sins that all the magic in the world can't dispel. No one wants to believe that Voldemort is back -- the prospect is too terrifying to grasp -- and the people in charge have been ruthlessly smearing anyone trying to raise the alarm. "Anyone" like Harry's mentor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), who defends him before the Ministry, and his godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who has resurrected a group called The Order of the Phoenix to combat the dark wizard's growing influence.

Yates proves skilled at interpreting this disturbing political crisis (with shades of too many real-world counterparts to count) through the marvelous details of Rowling's imagination: mystically hidden townhouses that unfold like a pop-up book; endless underworld storage rooms filled with humming crystal balls; and -- in the series' most expedient use of plot exposition -- the endlessly shifting pages of the Daily Prophet newspaper, mixing panicky headlines with authoritarian hogwash insisting that the Ministry has it all in hand. The nifty Prophet-based montages combine with some effects-assisted crane shots and clever blocking (watch for the argument on the stairway) to lighten our slow descent into the nether reaches of this world. The resulting atmosphere -- akin to standing at the doorway of a haunted house -- lingers marvelously as Harry narrowly acquits himself and makes his way back to Hogwarts, where the film's principle asset comes into play.

That would be Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), the new Ministry-appointed teacher sent to keep the trains running on time. Her dainty shoulders carry the film's load almost single-handedly, creating a gloriously memorable villain in a series already crammed to the rafters with them. Imagine Maria von Trapp as a Nazi mole, and you'll get the idea. With her Jackie O wardrobe and Pollyanna giggle, Umbridge looks ready to start singing "A Spoonful of Sugar" at any moment. Except that it's, you know, evil sugar: the kind they force down your throat with a funnel while industrial hymns to Comrade Stalin play in the background. She soon has Hogwarts locked into soul-stifling banality, usurping Dumbledore's chair and recruiting the local sociopaths to spy on their fellow students. Harry, now 15 and in the throes of adolescent iconoclasm, is too damn cranky to take it all lying down.

But there's more than frayed nerves at stake here, and with Voldemort on the rise, the film draws increasingly prominent connections between the boy wizard and his greatest foe. In light of that, the fact that we're still waiting for them to properly throw down has become a bit exasperating. Everything suggests that the time is right... except that there's still two more years of school to get through. So instead, Harry is left scuffling with comparatively minor baddies like Umbridge and Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), who serve as mere warm-ups for the main event. Narrative necessity offers the film no other choice, a sad fact that impedes its efforts to generate any unique momentum.

Despite that, Yates makes the best of what opportunities arise... mainly by borrowing a page from Goblet of Fire and bringing the supporting cast to the forefront. The Weasley twins, Fred and George (James and Oliver Phelps), have long been relegated to one-note pranksters, but with Umbridge's crackdown in full force, their anarchic hour comes 'round at last. Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), usually the runt of Hogwarts' litter, finds a little more of that spine we always knew he had. And a new pair of creepy chicks helps liven things up as well -- the younger a pale space cadet named Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) with a strange fixation on death; the elder a whackadoodle Deatheater named Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), freshly sprung from Azkaban prison. They all lend a distinctive wrinkle to the film's increasingly shopworn story arc, invigorating old shticks with a much-needed new perspective. Radcliffe remains in the forefront, of course -- aided by expectedly decent turns from Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as his pals Ron and Hermione -- but here as never before, he doesn't have to do it all alone.

And the support proves vital, because otherwise Order of the Phoenix is nothing more than a placeholder. We can sense where Harry's path leads and we know who's waiting for him at the end of it. But for now, we can do little but wait; Rowling is rationing all the serious developments to make sure they last until the end. The film pays a heavy price for that -- particularly in the climax, which feels distressingly pedestrian -- and while a few significant revelations arise, they lose a great deal of emotional weight amid the shadow of what is to come. That Order of the Phoenix doesn't collapse under the strain is as strong a testament to Rowling's vision as any -- aided by Yates' resolute directing and a performance from Staunton that may rank as the series' best. After five years on this road, the magic just can't surprise us any more. Yet magic still remains -- deep and abiding, with enough strength to take us through another serviceable Harry Potter adventure. How much further can it go? Thankfully, that's a question for another day... one that hopefully won't dawdle much longer.

Review published 07.11.2007.

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