Rowling's Fifth

A bit of the magic is lost in the latest Harry Potter installment

click to enlarge ALL TOGETHER NOW: The Hogwarts students are back for more magic and mayhem in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. - Warner Bros
Warner Bros
ALL TOGETHER NOW: The Hogwarts students are back for more magic and mayhem in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

The fifth book in J.K. Rowling's series about the resilient young magician is considerably darker than its predecessors. At 15, Harry Potter is filled with teen angst. His misery and anger are compounded by the unshakable memory of seeing his friend's murder by malicious wizard killer Lord Voldemort and by feelings of isolation that stem from the belief that the people he loves most are withholding information about the return of the evil lord.

This emotional tumult is key to the plotline of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. While filmmaker David Yates (best known for TV dramas like Girl in the Café and State of Play) gets the dark, gritty ambiance of the story right and reveals Harry's discontent in the most general sense, he never adequately explores the true depth of his suffering and all of its causes.

The movie opens promisingly enough, with Harry (played with his usual aplomb by Daniel Radcliff) perched on a swing in a playground where his bully cousin Dudley is bragging about the latest 10-year-old he's beaten up. Harry is in a funk, his gloomy attitude reflected in the gritty surroundings and aggravated by a verbal spat with Dudley that escalates to Harry drawing his wand.

But before he can act rashly, the sky darkens, the temperature drops, and Harry and Dudley find themselves running from the terrifying, soul-sucking Dementors who attack them and force Harry to defend himself with magic in the presence of his magic-less cousin, an illegal act. Faced with an inquisition at wizard court and possible expulsion from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry's future looks grim.

This sets up the central conflict of the film: that only Harry, his friends, Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix — a secret assembly of dark-arts-fighting witches and wizards — believe Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned to wreak havoc. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Magic not only denies that Voldemort has returned but is determined to discredit Harry in any and every way possible, which includes using the magic world's primary source for news, The Daily Prophet, as a means to make Harry look like a liar and a fraud.

The Ministry even goes so far as to send agent Dolores Umbridge — senior undersecretary to the Minister of Magic — to fill the vacant Defense Against Dark Arts teaching position at Hogwarts, an effort to keep an eye on Harry and his allies while enforcing a new Ministry-approved course of defensive magic. This leaves all the young wizards woefully unprepared to defend themselves against dark forces. Soon enough, Umbridge has arranged her own promotion to High Inquisitor of Hogwarts and begins making life miserable for everyone at the school who doesn't conform to her ever-growing list of standards.

British star Imelda Staunton plays the loathsome Umbridge with great skill, her memorable villain marked by all manner of fake smiles, sinister giggles and fluffy pink sweaters. Unfortunately, Umbridge is one of the film's few fully fleshed-out characters.

The other Potter films have streamlined the books' plots, most often successfully, but Order of the Phoenix suffers as a result. The trimming of several subplots — Ron Weasley becoming Keeper of the Gryffindor Quidditch team, the truth surrounding the fate of Neville Longbottom's parents, the full account of Hagrid's quest to find giants and the treachery of house-elf Kreacher — is the main culprit in the film's general lack of character development. And though Helena Bonham Carter's cameo as Bellatrix Lestrange, a psychotic Azkaban prison escapee, is quite memorable, she gets minimal face time.

Order of the Phoenix also contains very little insight into Harry's fragile mental state, made worse by the systematic removal of Harry's professor allies from Hogwarts and the sheer exhaustion he feels from taking an additional (and very necessary) night class with the dreaded Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), studying for his wizard examinations, dealing with Umbridge's numerous disciplinary demands and heading up a super-secret dark-arts defense class to compensate for the lack of teaching from Umbridge. His awkward relationship with love interest Cho Chang (Katie Leung) is marginally explored (and his onscreen kiss overhyped), but overall, the only emotions Harry seems able to express are anger and frustration.

To top it off, the film lacks the charming magical quality the others possessed and the visually spectacular moments for which the Harry Potter franchise is so well known. The shortage of special effects is most apparent in the film's tense final moments, when a huge battle between good and evil reaches a rather anticlimactic finish.

Ironically, the film is based on the longest Potter book thus far, yet it possesses the shortest running time of the five. The director relies too much on flash-forwards to advance the plotline and too little on actual story substance.

Yates has never worked on a big-budget, special-effects-driven movie before, so perhaps he gets a pardon for the film's dearth of visual dazzle. But he must take the blame for Order of the Phoenix's lack of finesse and its often clumsy oversimplification of the plot. It would seem that the director, who's on board for the next Harry Potter installment, still has much to learn.

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