As with readers of J.K. Rowling's massively popular novels, awaiting a new "Harry Potter" film every year or two has become a real anticipatory treat. By and large, the cinematic adaptations have progressively improved in quality, depth and scope, with the bland charms of 2001's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
" and 2002's "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
" segueing nicely into the richer, more complex works that are 2004's "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
" and 2005's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
." This trend continues with the fifth installment in the planned seven-part series. "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" beautifully translates the story, characters and soul of Rowling's epic 870-page tome while seamlessly condensing it and standing assuredly apart from its source material. At 138 minutes, it is the shortest of the pictures thus far, but also the most thematically dense and emotionally satisfying. To say that it is also easily the darkest is a given, but this bears mentioning, too.
15-year-old Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) sits on a swing in an idyllic suburban park. The sun is bright and the sky is blue, but the weight of the world is on his shoulders, not helped by the taunts of his nasty cousin Dudley Dursley (Harry Melling). Even on such a seemingly beautiful summer day, Harry cannot enjoy himself. He knows that Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), murderer of his parents fourteen years before, is not only alive, but preparing to come after him. His fears are only heightened when the clouds darken, a gloomy blue-gray pall suddenly covers the landscape, and two ghostly Dementors make their nearly inconceivable appearance within the non-magic world to hunt Harry and Dudley down. In desperation, underage Harry uses a spell to save thema major no-no in front of a Mugglethat gets him expelled from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Even when Harry returns to school after a hearing in front of the Ministry of Magic grants him a pardon, there is no time for games. Not only is he up against those in power who are skeptical of his claims about Voldemort's return, but he and the rest of his classmates are suddenly placed under the smotheringly strict hand of Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. A smiling, pink nightmare come to life, Dolores uses her position as the Senior Undersecretary to the Minister to take over the school, replace Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) as Headmaster, and stack up a list of ridiculous new school codes that grow longer with each day. Not about to be silenced, Harry, with the help of best friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), secretly go about gathering together a group of students to fill out "Dumbledore's Army." If they hope to go up against Lord Voldemort and his evil forcesand winthey have a lot of work to do.
"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" has been directed by David Yates, a relative unknown who has primarily worked for the BBC, and penned by Michael Goldenberg (2003's "Peter Pan
"), taking over for previous screenwriter Steve Kloves. The shift in behind-the-scenes talent has aided in freshening up the series and avoiding the danger of becoming stale. This is key to much of this latest film's grand success, for what started as family entertainment in the early entries has grown along with its characters into a more mature fantasy that is coming ever closer to rivaling the rapturously eye-popping, imaginative and dramatically resounding heights of "The Lord of the Rings
Under a greater deal of stress and an escalating sense of responsibility, Harry has been forced to say good-bye to his childhood once and for all. Now surrounded by a suffocating knowledge of his own mortality, Harry is a stronger individual not afraid to stand up for himself and what he believes is right, but still conflicted with abiding by the rules set before him. Hermione and Ron feel it too, and it is these three friends, their relationship, and their respectable journey toward growing up that is at the heart of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." In turn, the film is the most intimate and character-intensive of the lot, not so much about a singular plotline or story pointi.e. the Tri-Wizard Tournament in "Goblet of Fire
"but with the vaster scope of teenagers coming of age, simultaneously as a natural process of time and one pushed upon them by the grimmer forces of the world around them. When Harry experiences his first kiss with Cho Chang (Katie Leung), only for them to drift apart as first crushes usually do, it is an initially joyful moment that culminates with the bitter pangs of a fleeting adolescent romance not meant to be.
At practically every turn, dread is a character unto itself, atmospherically pulsating to fruition out of director David Yates' masterful direction, Slawomir Idziak's (2001's "Black Hawk Down
") sumptuously brooding cinematography, and Stuart Craig's (2000's "The Legend of Bagger Vance
") extravagant production design. At once fantastical and grittily reality-based, the picture's mystical aesthetics and sharply truthful humanity meet smoothly in the middle. The action set-pieces amidst the drama additionally raise the stakes, mysterious and threatening in a way they haven't quite previously been captured in this series. The opening attack by the Dementors is genuinely chilling and foreboding, while the climactic good vs. evil standoff at the Department of Mysteries is stunningly realized. For those unfamiliar with the book, a major character death occurs in the third act that proves without a doubt all bets are off and no one is safe.
It has been amazing to witness the maturation of actors Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint as their characters of Harry, Hermione and Ron have likewise gotten older. With the experience they have received from these movies, their acting skills have considerably improved as well. No other performers could fill these crucial roles like these three do, nor would it be wise for anyone to try. Radcliffe is excellent as Harry Potter, with the resourcefulness, courage and a newly acquired edge to give him the depth this literary-turned-cinematic hero deserves. Watson, always a standout as Hermione, has become a breathtaking screen presence in her own right, and she no longer relies upon her eyebrows and scrunched forehead to help in getting her emotions across. Meanwhile, Grint is the superb middleman between Harry and Hermione, and has nearly switched places with Hermione to be the "levelheaded" one of the group.
The elder cast members do not receive the screen time many of them have had in the past, but a few make themselves known. Gary Oldman (2001's "Hannibal
") is warm and indelible as Harry's godfather Sirius Black, and for the first time, Michael Gambon (2006's "The Omen
") noticeably comes into his own as Professor Albus Dumbledore. New to the franchise, Imelda Staunton (2007's "Freedom Writers
") is frighteningly good as the despicable Dolores Umbridge; her hateful yet cheery persona is like a cross between Kathy Bates' Annie Wilkes in "Misery" and Betsy Palmer's Mrs. Vorhees in the original "Friday the 13th
." Finally, newcomer Evanna Lynch is a deliciously quirky find as sweetly oddball classmate Luna Lovegood.
Disregarding a spare subplot or two that could have been excised without any damagethe scenes with Hagrid's younger giant brother come to mind"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is, to date, the series' reigning achievement from which the proceeding two chapters now must be judged next to. Provocatively political besides being an entertaining marvel of invention and storytellingDolores' harsh demands of censorship and taking-away of student freedoms resonates because it is so very much parallel with today's own governmental rulings"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is one of this summer's smartest and most invigorating releases. The final scene, suggesting so much without feeling the need to spell it out, is an exquisite capper. Imminent dangers stand before Harry Potter in the coming year, but as he states in the film's powerfully suggestive final line, he, Hermione and Ron share a one-of-a-kind bond that Lord Voldemort will never have. Above all, it is this very thing that makes "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" so special.