Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter and Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood in Warner Bros. Pictures’ fantasy “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”
In the opening scenes of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” storm clouds literally gather. Harry’s world is a darker, more foreboding place than ever before, fraught with grim prophecies and impending perils.
This isn’t just foreshadowing, though; the movie dives right into the action. Within moments, Harry and his malicious cousin, Dudley, are assaulted by a pair of “rogue” Dementors in a suburban setting near the home of his spiteful aunt and uncle, the Dursleys. The attack, it turns out, is a ploy designed to get Harry in hot water for using magic outside Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
In the last movie, Harry alone witnessed the return of Lord Voldemort. While his staunchest supporters believe his claims, others – particularly elements of the Ministry of Magic – consider the rumored resurrection a barefaced fabrication. Worried that he could be overthrown, Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge – played wonderfully with a hint of Orwellian despotism by Robert Hardy – tries to eliminate the threat by vilifying Harry and his mentor, Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon).
Evil has two faces in “Order of the Phoenix.” Voldemort, still skulking in the shadows as he assembles his disciples and prepares for a new reign of terror, may be the most formidable foe Harry and his friends will face … but it is Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge who orchestrates a more immediate menace. Planted by Fudge and the Ministry of Magic, Umbridge surpasses her given role as Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor and with bureaucratic tyranny eventually supplants Dumbledore as headmaster at the school.
Staunton’s portrayal of Umbridge stands out in a film that boasts many outstanding performances. Part Nurse Ratched, part Looney Tunes’ Witch Hazel (with a liberal dash of saccharine Hyacinth Bucket thrown in for good measure), Umbridge smiles and titters to conceal the iron fist with which her dictatorial edicts are executed.
Alan Rickman, reprising his role as Severus Snape, turns in his best work yet in the franchise’s fifth film. With his loyalties perpetually in question, Snape’s persistent ambiguity adds considerable depth to a character that could ultimately determine Harry’s fate. Newcomer Evanna Lynch delivers a wonderfully weird screen debut as Luna Lovegood, bringing to mind 11-year-old Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams in the 1991 film “Addams Family.”
And that’s just scratching the surface. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint leave no doubt that they’ve matured in their roles as, respectively, Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. And then there’s Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Mark Williams … the list goes on. With such fine acting, it is a shame that so many talents are limited in screen time.
That’s the film’s main flaw: It introduces new characters and promptly fails to develop them fully. To some degree this is a distraction. The audience is left wanting to learn more about Natalia Tena’s Nymphadora Tonks and Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange. In an effort to accentuate the action, characterization suffers.
But that’s what this installment is all about – plot and action. This is the wind-up that manifestly sets up the showdown that will play out over the next two movies as Harry and Voldemort race toward their inevitable confrontation. Ironically, the longest book in the series was condensed into the shortest film in the franchise by director David Yates.
For his first time at bat on a Harry Potter film, Yates exceeds expectations. Ushering in all of the dread and darkness author J.K. Rowling infused in the story, Yates occasionally evokes the style of Ken Russell, thrusting surreal salvos of nightmarish visual effects at the audience to underscore the growing gloom. The result is fast-paced suspense punctuated by unblemished – albeit abridged – performances.