Though I haven't read any of the Harry Potter books, I get the sense that the movie series, however solid, has underachieved. The first two installments, directed by the terminally average Hollywood veteran Christopher Columbus, felt like dutiful, literal-minded adaptations — like someone taking care to transpose the content of the book to the screen rather than capture the spirit of the source material in a different medium.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the recently released fifth installment, joins Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron's series-best third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, in breaking out of this trap. Order of the Phoenix is directed by British television vet David Yates, who is new to the series, and whether the credit goes to Yates or author J.K. Rowling's novel, Order of the Phoenix feels more like a film than the non-Cuaron preceding films and less like a series of scenes from the book.
One suspects Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (also a Potter newbie) deserve a lot of credit: Even though Rowling's novel ran nearly 900 pages, Order of the Phoenix is the shortest (at a still-hefty 138 minutes) and least densely plotted movie in the series. In fact, Order of the Phoenix doesn't move the series forward in terms of strict narrative as much as it deepens the story's characterizations and emotional terrain — while adding a crucial bit of backstory.
Order of the Phoenix picks up where the previous installment, 2005's Goblet of Fire (the first in the series to be rated PG-13) left off. In that film, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) faced down his nemesis, the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), for the first time, a confrontation that left a classmate dead and Harry shaken. Order of the Phoenix opens with a forlorn Harry slumped in the swing set of a darkened playground, tormented by his Muggle foster brother Dudley (Harry Melling), this human menace soon replaced by a more serious magical one.
What follows is the darkest, most dangerous installment yet. There are no high-flying Quiddage matches here (though the Weasley twins do engage in a similarly rousing bit of uncivil disobedience) and fewer bits of wonder for wonder's sake. Instead, Order of the Phoenix is largely about Potter and his pals — trusty sidekicks Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) — asserting their independence, preparing to confront Voldemort and his minions in place of elders who aren't taking the impending threat seriously enough — though this plotline results in an action climax so steeped in both standard mythologies and fantasy-film pyrotechnics that it feels a bit too much like something borrowed from Star Wars.
Though there are fewer light-hearted, magical bits here than in previous installments, Order of the Phoenix is like the other Potter movies in that many of the greatest pleasures are incidental or tangential to the primary plot. This starts, as always, with the witty, inventive depiction of a subterranean parallel society with its own government and media institutions. But the real treat is the terrific supporting cast of adults. The Potter movies have become a gallery of contemporary British thespians, and, in addition to delicious turns from repeat performers such as Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, and Alan Rickman, Order of the Phoenix adds Helena Bonham Carter (as one of Voldemort's helpers) and, best of all, Imelda Staunton (so brilliant in Mike Leigh's Vera Drake) as new Hogwarts headmistress Dolores Umbridge, a dowdy, smiling, pastel fascist who almost walks away with the film.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix