The dark side casts its spell in latest 'Harry Potter'
Playtime is over.
There's no Quidditch match in the new "Harry Potter" movie. Even if there were, I don't think anybody would show up. Nor are there many of the huge computer-generated showcase scenes that don't advance the plot but exist solely for our summer-movie dazzlement. Darker, leaner, less expansive , and meaner, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix " is all business, and it casts a spell utterly unlike the first four films.
But it still casts a spell. Like it or not -- and the characters don't seem terribly happy about it -- this series is growing up with moody blockbuster urgency. More emotionally wracked with each new entry, the "Potter" franchise has become a mainstream fantasy metaphor for adolescent crisis. It's "Rebel Without a Curse."
For the three of you who haven't read the book (that makes four of us), "Phoenix" finds Hogwarts and the entire wizard world in a tizzy. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe ) successfully confronted Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes , sans nose) at the end of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ," but the trouble is that precious few believe him, least of all Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy , looking very much like the Neville Chamberlain of this fictional universe ).
Fudge is convinced that Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon ) is raising a student army to overthrow him, and he installs a Ministry representative at the Academy. Her name is Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton ), and she is a horror.
The genetic offspring of Margaret Thatcher and Attila the Hun , Umbridge dresses in pink and is always smiling, even when she's tormenting a student with a magic quill that carves "I will not tell lies" into his skin. She collects commemorative plates with kittens on them (they mew plaintively in the background as she doles out the punishments). Driven to smoke out traitors, she instigates a witch hunt -- an irony that sails right over her head. She's every sadistic, self-righteous teacher you've ever hated, and Staunton puts the movie in her purse and struts off with it.
Urged on by his godfather, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman ), and other members of the title secret society -- Voldemort fighters of Harry's parents' generation -- the students band together to teach themselves magic on the sly, vowing to protect their headmaster in the inevitable showdown. (They're like kids putting on a show, only the balance of the universe is at stake.) "Phoenix" takes place almost entirely in the shadowy corridors of Hogwarts, rarely venturing outside to breathe the air, but it uses that visual oppressiveness to build a dogged sense of duty. If the movie's not much fun, it's because there simply isn't time.
For one thing, Voldemort is busy burrowing into the hero's mind, or perhaps that's just the evil side of Harry coming out. "I feel so angry all the time," he despairs, and Radcliffe's a good enough actor to blur the line between external stress and internal hormones.
Elsewhere the movie advances the entangled narratives of its young characters as best it can. Emma Watson's Hermione and Rupert Grint's Ron take a relative back seat to Harry's identity crisis this time out, but the gawkily heroic Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis ) comes further into his own, and the prankish Weasley twins (James and Oliver Phelps ) get more screen-time than ever (they're the only enjoyment the movie allows itself to have).
I wish I could say Harry's romance with classmate Cho Chang (Katie Leung ) carried a punch, but the character's a drip and a dramatic non-starter, here only so the hero can have his first kiss. ("It was wet," Harry reports. "Well, Cho's been crying a lot lately," says Hermione.) Much more interesting is a spooky new girl named Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch ), who sees things that may or may not be there: She's like Dakota Fanning after a few conks on the head, and I hope we get more of her.
The adult characters, by comparison, are lost in the shuffle that comes with compressing an 800-page novel into a two-hour-plus movie. All "Potter" movies are acts of literary triage, but this one more than most: Shuffling in and out are Robbie Coltrane's Hagrid , Emma Thompson's Professor Trelawney , Maggie Smith's Minerva McGonagall , Brendan Gleeson's Mad-Eye Moody , David Thewlis' Lupin -- half the actors in England, it seems.
With the villainous new character of Bellatrix Lestrange -- a Voldemort minion escaped from Azkaban Prison -- you feel the loss, since Helena Bonham Carter plays her with deliciously scary Goth relish. (The same goes for Natalia Tena's sexy, shape-shifting Nymphadora Tonks ; she's here and gone.) On the plus side, Gambon as Dumbledore and Alan Rickman as Severus Snape are more present than ever, and we learn a bit about Snape that deepens him in satisfying ways while tarnishing the memory of Harry's beloved dad. Idols don't fall in "Phoenix," but they do totter alarmingly.
The director is David Yates , a little-known British TV veteran who represents a change-up from the marquee names of previous installments. He's best known for "The Girl in the Cafe , " a muted two-character romantic drama that aired on HBO and was as far from a $150 million multiplex mega-toy as it's possible to get.
The choice turns out to have been inspired. As the "Potter" movies turn more interior and the CGI trickery becomes more reflective of the characters' emotional states, a director who knows how to navigate the nuances is invaluable. Most filmmakers can move traffic; fewer know how to move audiences. Yates still needs to work on the former -- some of the transitions in "Phoenix" are painfully awkward -- but he has already mastered the latter. (Even so, the climactic battle against Voldemort, set in an immense storeroom with thousands of shelves vanishing into inky infinity, is magisterial.)
This may not be the "Phoenix" a lot of people want to see. There are two audiences for a "Harry Potter" film. The first wants the book replicated on the screen down to the last period and portkey, and if it isn't, lo, the instant-message tantrums will be many and studded with exclamation points. (There's a reason this reviewer elects not to read the books: I'd rather focus on what's in the movie than be distracted by what's left out.)
The second audience wanders in wondering what the fuss is about and hoping for a good circus. "Phoenix" doesn't really deliver that, either. No Hungarian Horntails on the roof of Hogwarts this time, just a few centaurs and a sense of growing fury that the grown-ups aren't listening. This one's for the Rowling fans who understand movies can be much, much more than photocopied books. The question is whether they're out there.