Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (United States/United Kingdom, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With its fifth cinematic outing, the Harry Potter film series has ascended to another level. In addition to providing a self-contained, well-paced adventure, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix also begins to coalesce the epic ether that has been building over the past four films (especially the last two). With this movie, we sense that we're on the brink of something big, dark, and ominous. "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes…" For a franchise that began under the lightweight guardianship of director Chris Columbus, these pictures have gotten progressively darker. The Order of the Phoenix is easily the gloomiest yet. The movie is not suitable for young children (although, considering that Harry's core audience has aged considerably since the release of the first book in 1997, that shouldn't be a big problem).

This may be the first Harry Potter movie that cannot stand on its own. There are too many references to past events and too many characters from the earlier films for a neophyte not to get at least a little lost. This is a welcome development, since it signals that the series has passed the setup point and is getting into the meat of the good-versus-evil battle. Although The Order of the Phoenix does not end in cliffhanger style, there's more than a passing sense that the undercurrent is beginning to bubble and churn. We can be thankful that there's only an 18 month wait for the next installment (or, for those who can't stand the suspense, the book isn't hard to find).

The Order of the Phoenix is the first Harry Potter feature not adapted by screenwriter Steve Kloves, who moved straight from The Goblet of Fire to The Half-Blood Prince. Michael Goldenberg does an admirable job filling the breach. He streamlines the overstuffed novel into a compact package that fills only about 2 1/4 hours worth of screen time without losing any of the main plot points. To be sure, much is lost, but fans of the books will find that the movie is faithful, if not slavishly so, to the text. For those who have gotten their Harry Potter fix entirely through the cinematic incarnation, the script is lucid and fast-moving. There's no sense that reading the book is necessary to the understanding of the plot.

Director David Yates becomes the fourth man to sit in the series' director's chair. (He will also helm The Half-Blood Prince.) Of the four, Yates has the least impressive pedigree, having spent the majority of his career working in British television. His vision of Harry Potter's world is much like Mike Newell's (The Goblet of Fire). It's a gray, dreary place where darkness has overspread everything. The wonder of magic evident in the first two films is gone. Magic is now more than likely something dangerous and to be feared.

In The Order of the Phoenix, the battle lines are being drawn, with Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his legion of Death Eaters and twisted creatures on one side, and Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends on the other. Harry is supported by schoolmates such as Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), Cho Chang (Katie Leung), Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) and Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), and by adults such as Hogwarts' Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Professor Moody (Brendan Gleeson), and Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). But there are those who distrust Harry's pronouncement that the Dark Lord has returned. The Ministry of Magic sees a conspiracy in this and sends Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) to Hogwarts as an Inquisitor to sort things out. After usurping Dumbledore's position, she sets her sights on neutering Harry. But evil forces are abroad and Harry must teach his fellow students how to defend themselves or risk annihilation. Umbridge wants Harry's secret magic lessons stopped and she will do whatever is necessary to accomplish that aim. Meanwhile, Voldemort's plans take root.

The Order of the Phoenix continues the character development that has been in evidence throughout the series. Individuals who started out life as bundles of carefully grouped stock characteristics have become complex and interesting. Jealousy, rage, envy, and sexual attraction have all reared their heads. In a much-publicized scene, Harry gets to experience his first kiss. The movie never threatens to turn into a romance or after-school special, but it highlights that there's more to these characters than reciting Latin words and taming giants. At the center of the story isn't the struggle against Voldemort, but the friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione. They're teenagers now, and they interact differently than in the early films, but the passage of years has only strengthened their bonds.

Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint have developed into fine actors. Radcliffe had an opportunity to show his range (and a few other things) in a much publicized stage performance while Grint has honed his talent in the British film Driving Lesson. Emma Watson remains the weak link in the cast; not coincidentally, the only role she has ever played is Hermione. As has been the case for all the films, the adult cast is a "who's who" of British cinema. Cast members Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Emma Thompson, and Alan Rickman are joined by Harry Potter virgins Imelda Staunton and Helena Bonham Carter. Rickman once again proves that ambiguity can be more chilling than pure evil. His Snape is a lot more frightening than Fiennes' Voldemort. When it comes to generating unparalleled audience hatred, however, no one does it better than Imelda Staunton, and that's in part because the smile rarely drops. She could shoot a man dead at ten paces with that smile.

It's my impression that the Harry Potter movies have been getting progressively better. In the beginning, the filmmakers were too intimidated by the books. Over the years, they have taken more liberties, allowing the features to achieve a unique identity - related yet not yoked to J.K. Rowling's hugely successful series. I have heard it mentioned in some quarters that The Order of the Phoenix is regarded as one of the weaker novels, yet it is arguably the best film. Though Yates' style may not be on par with that of Alfonso Cuaron (The Prisoner of Azkaban), there is more substance. The movie flows and moves. There's a sense of adventure and the progression of events is not predictable. The special effects aren't the best of the summer, but they're more than good enough to get the job done, and several shots are breathtaking. I walked out of The Order of the Phoenix feeling like I had experienced something rather than being pummeled senseless by explosions and soulless robots.

When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone debuted in 2001, it felt like a watered-down, children's version of The Lord of the Rings. Six years later, Tolkien's trilogy is done but Rowling's longer serial is just hitting its stride. With The Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter has truly come into his own, fulfilling the promise of The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Goblet of Fire. These are no longer cute stories of wizards and magic and things that go bump in the night. They are dark tales where the themes and creatures become increasingly distorted as the frames whiz by. The Order of the Phoenix is the best on offer to-date from the Harry Potter cinematic franchise, and one of the few reasons during the summer of 2007 to venture out to a multiplex.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (United States/United Kingdom, 2007)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 2007-07-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1