"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is the most rousing of the Potter films so far, and certainly one of the best. Right from the start — when Harry is attacked by way-off-their-turf Dementors — the director, David Yates, commits himself to movement, to whipping the story forward. There's a lot of action in the picture, but even when he gears down to focus on the series' bedrock themes of friendship, love and loyalty, Yates keeps hustling things along. There's very little narrative fat in the film; it's lean and gleaming.
You'll recall that at the end of the last movie, " Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) barely survived an encounter with the odious Lord Voldemort (snake-faced Ralph Fiennes). Unfortunately, there were no witnesses to this incident, and so now, as "Phoenix" opens, we find Harry being badmouthed throughout the wizarding world as a liar. The spineless Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), refuses to believe that Voldemort, thought crushed 14 years ago, is back in action. The wizard newspaper, The Daily Prophet, parrots this line, as do most of its readers, including many of Harry's Hogwarts schoolmates.
Making things worse, Harry, faced with a no-choice situation, has utilized a magical charm in front of a Muggle — a serious offense. He's hauled before a Ministry of Magic tribunal and threatened with expulsion from Hogwarts. Fortunately, his protector, Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), although acting strangely these days, steps forth to argue Harry's case. Then things get worse yet.
Fudge installs one of his minions, a rulebook Nazi named Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), as Hogwarts' new teacher of Defense Against the Dark Arts. Umbridge is a giggling martinet in dowdy pink suits (Staunton is deliciously detestable in the role), and she decrees that, since Voldemort is not in fact back, the students need no longer be taught actual defensive magic. Appalled and rebellious, Harry and his pals Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) persuade a group of fellow students to join them in forming Dumbledore's Army, an underground group dedicated to practicing wand work and charm-casting on their own. Infuriated by their insubordination, Umbridge seizes more and more power at the school, until she's soon running the place. Meanwhile, of course, Voldemort is back, and he's after something that Harry has to find first in order to head off magical calamity.
By now, there are so many characters thronging the Potter saga that some of our favorites are getting crowded into the background. Beyond an occasional passing sneer, there's not a lot to be seen of the scheming Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton); and the lovable Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) is gone a lot, consulting with faraway Giants. Even the sublime Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) puts in limited appearances this time (although when you hear Rickman bite into a phrase like "extracting the last exquisite ounce of agony," you know he's still giving the part his total attention).
Fortunately, Radcliffe, now exuding a more muscular leading-man presence, has never been more solid, even though he's called upon to hyperventilate a bit too much as the movie barrels along. And two new characters more than justify their introduction into the story. The mad witch Belletrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) is uproariously vile; and a new Hogwarts student — adorable space-case Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) — gently lights up every scene she's in. (Lynch is a Potter-loving non-actor who auditioned for the role because she felt she was born to play it, and every time her dreamy face floats into view, you realize she's right.)
Director Yates, probably best-known for his British TV work, strives with considerable success to exert control over a story that's beginning to fly off in directions that might seem obscure to those who haven't read the books (see "Harry Potter's First Date Flops, Quidditch Ditched: What 'Phoenix' Flick Leaves Out"). Working with the Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak ("Black Hawk Down"), he constructs some dazzling environments (like the black-lacquered halls of the Ministry of Magic, where interdepartmental memos go winging through the air like origami hummingbirds). Yates also creates some marvelous set-piece scenes — a fireworks attack on an Umbridge classroom, for instance, and a marvelous moment when the crusty "Mad-Eye" Moody (played again by Brendan Gleeson) commands an entire apartment building to slide apart from the center, revealing a hidden, magical residence within. The director has also brought back the Etonian robes and school ties that gave the early Potter movies such a rich British flavor. (Alfonso Cuarón, who directed the third film, started turning Harry and company into standard-issue teens-in-jeans.) In addition, the Gryffindor ghosts remain gone, which is good; and a welcome time-out has been called in the endless Hogwarts Quidditch games.
Yates has turned the longest of J.K. Rowling's Potter novels into the shortest of the movies so far (two hours and 18 minutes), and it was clearly a smart decision on the part of the producers to re-hire him early on to direct the next film, "Half-Blood Prince." Fans should be psyched, I think — let the can't-waiting begin.
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