2005’s “Goblet of Fire” jolted the “Harry Potter” series to a new level of emotional investment and dramatic concern. It was a high point for the franchise, finally finding substantial meat for us muggles (I’m no student of J.K. Rowling’s work) to chew on. “Order of the Phoenix” manages to top that potential in an immense way, compacting the longest “Potter” book into the shortest film yet (135 minutes), streamlining the urgency into a tasty pudding fan and non-fan should positively respond to.
With the death of Cedric Diggory weighing heavily on his soul, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) enters his fifth year at Hogwarts an angry young man, struck with disbelief over how many dispute his claim that Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned. After learning that Voldemort is planning a war on wizards, from Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) and the secret Order of the Phoenix, Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) choose to teach a group of Hogwarts students the finer points of spell casting to create their own army. All this upsets new Defence Against the Dark Arts professor Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), who looks to ban all practical usage of magic and assume control of the school.
How “Phoenix” turned out so magnificently is a bit of a mystery. Here we have screenwriter Michael Goldenberg replacing Steve Kloves, who guided the first four movies of this series to adaptation contentment, meticulously and creatively shuffling pieces of Rowling’s imagination to best fit the rigid confines of a feature film. Surprisingly, Goldenberg acquits himself beautifully to the demanding job, cleaving away massive sections of narrative to boil the film down to the basics. The new picture is dense with exposition, trying to summon a lightening storm of tension between the arrival of evil and the organization of good. The script hugs those thick guide rails tightly, focusing on Harry’s newfound leadership role and the persistence of Voldemort to split the boy’s mind in two.
Obviously, Goldenberg can’t always smuggle plot points in organically; a prime example is found in the appearance of Hagrid’s giant brother, Grawp, who factors into the payoff of the picture, but never transforms into a needed part of the momentum; an addition meant more for fans than narrative importance. The fringe of Umbridge’s sinister wrath is also an element that’s lost to the cruel world of judicious book-to-film adaptations. She’s established with icy, passive-aggressive menace, but the reach of her venom is left a little blurry.
Behind the camera is David Yates, the first filmmaker of the series without any serious big screen credits to his name. Yates is primarily a television helmer, brought into the “Potter” fold due to his ease with actors. The effect is obvious from the get go; Yates pulls a much more profound performance out of Radcliffe in a feature that rests entirely on the young actor’s shoulders. It helps that he’s working with the absolute best English talent (Michael Gambon, Jason Issacs, and Fiennes are all outstanding), but Yates is digging a little deeper than his predecessors ever could. He’s working with a plot that doesn’t cause a dramatic earthquake, but instead seethes and builds to a terrific sense of future war.
Yates also captures a newfound sense of scope. While lacking the finer point of patience, “Phoenix” licks the outer edge of the Kubrickian envelope; cinematographer Nicholas Hooper choosing a more steely, polished look for the film. He brings out the moody colors of Hogwarts and the final wizard battle royal, which could pass for a dynamic, uncontainable Epcot laser show if there wasn’t a noseless wizard running around the frame. If Chris Columbus bequeathed “Potter” with his warmth, Alfonso Cuaron infused mystery, and Mike Newell boosted the epic thunder, Yates lends the franchise an arresting impression of danger and angst that turns the story from one of continual wonder to one of survival and end-of-days preparation.
Also involved in this “Potter” installment is a fresh thematic coating pertaining to the idea of media manipulation, with Hogwarts and Harry struggling to stay one step ahead of “The Daily Prophet” and their usage of rumor and doubt to help suppress talk of Voldemort’s return. The newspaper takes a greater role in the film’s plot than ever before, adding to the smoothness of transitions between subplots and lending “Phoenix” a slight shiver of paranoia the series has never felt before.
Sure to delight the younger “Potter” fans is the continued sexualization of Harry, who locks lips with a classmate in “Phoenix,” demonstrating that future references to “alone time with your wand” could mean anything at this point. Radcliffe plays the teen anxiety solidly, and while the puberty leap of the three leads isn’t as pronounced as it was in “Goblet of Fire,” the feeling is still there in “Phoenix,” in the way Harry rebels against the establishment, Ron’s confidence ripens, and Hermione starts to take pleasure in breaking the rules. The wonder of kids shaking hands with magic for the first time had its charms, but count me in for these later years when the alchemy of the outside world is nowhere near as strongly felt as it is on the inside of the teen wizards.
With Umbridge wielding the color pink as switchblade (Staunton is perfectly cast), the abstract Voldemort nightmares increasing, Harry trusting in the familial comfort of Sirius, witnessing an honest-to-god Azkaban prison break (resulting in the release of Bellatrix Lestrange, played with rumpled heat by Helena Bonham Carter), and finding a newfound purpose for Snape which allows Alan Rickman to run away with the film yet again, “The Order of the Phoenix” satisfies on a multitude of levels both mighty and minute. Certainly it’s a transitory piece of filmmaking unable to rustle up a monster payoff, but it’s a wholly satisfying one; the best so far of the franchise, pushing Harry’s problems to unforeseen directions of gravitas and tension that I never perceived from the series before. Now, like millions of rabid “Potter” fanatics, I can’t wait to see where all this wizardry and ambiguity ends up. I’m hooked.Rating: A-