Decidedly older, definitely angrier, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) goes through his darkest days in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." He has good reason to be both paranoid and rebellious. Dementors attack him on his school break, he's threatened with expulsion from Hogwarts, and The Daily Prophet, the official organ of the Ministry of Magic, calls him a liar for claiming that the evil Lord Voldemort has reappeared on the scene. Even Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) seems to distance himself from Harry. Making matters far, far worse, the smiling, pink-clad fascist, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), Hogwarts's new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, is transforming the school into a joyless, repressive prison for Harry and his friends.
This description will be redundant to the millions of readers of the fifth installment of Harry's adventures—an 870-page epic that had to shed many pounds to squeeze into a two-and-a-quarter-hour movie. Those who have not read the book, however, may wonder how J. K. Rowling could have devoted so many pages to what seems, on screen, the slightest, most water-treading of the series. A new screenwriter, Michael Goldenberg, replaces Steve Kloves, and the British TV director David Yates has taken the reins. After the triumph of the last two movies, directed by Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell, this is a letdown. Let me hasten to add that there are delights to be had. Two new members of the cast are particularly welcome: Staunton as the horridly cheerful, scarily funny Umbridge and newcomer Evanna Lynch, who plays the blonde, ethereal Luna Lovegood, a new ally of Harry's, with just the right off-kilter spaciness. Another standout is Gary Oldman as Harry's godfather, Sirius Black, whose hidden London digs are headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix, a secret underground organization devoted to fighting Voldemort's growing army of darkness. And, as always, Stuart Craig's production design offers endless visual delights: perhaps the most notable addition being the vast, black-tiled Ministry of Magic buried deep below London, where Harry is summoned to go on trial.
Radcliffe is clearly willing and able to take Harry to deeper, darker places, but the screenplay doesn't give him enough to play off of—his newly embattled relationships with Ron and Hermione didn't make it to the screen. Nor do the political subtexts really come alive: why is the ministry so adamant in denying Voldemort's existence? Naturally, we suspect the worst—that the powers that be are in cahoots with He Who Can't Be Named—but that appears not to be the case. The storytelling seems occasionally disjointed, but more important, for all the special-effects wizardry, that touch of film magic never surfaces. There's fireworks and action and much swooshing about, but this interim installment seems stuck in one nightmarish gear.