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"Phoenix" mostly in good "Order"

On the heels of its record-setting first day in US theaters, the fifth installment in the Harry Potter saga, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, opens today across the UK, only a week in advance of the final book's release date. Needless to say, anticipation has been high for some time amongst fans of the series (such as myself), so much so that it can be difficult, at times, to keep the necessary critical distance required to craft a fair review. That said, I will do my best to treat the film as fairly as I can from a critical, not a fanatical, point of view. The good news is that, for the most part, Order of the Phoenix (or OOtP) is a successful film and should satisfy both casual fans and the sort that have been chomping at the bit for another Potter film since 2005's disappointing Goblet of Fire.

OOtP begins quickly and without much to refresh the foggier-minded audience members about what's happened in parts one through four. Harry's (Daniel Radcliffe) vile cousin Dudley (Harry Melling) provides as much summary as we'll get when he mocks Harry for crying in his sleep about the death of Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson), which occurred at the hands of the reborn Lord Voldemort (the creepy, noseless Ralph Fiennes) at the conclusion of the previous film. Then, Harry and Dudley are attacked by Dementors, the foul, happiness-draining spectres previously seen in the third installment, leading Harry to use protective magic despite it being against wizarding rules. Soon, Harry finds himself expelled from school and locked at home by his loathsome Aunt and Uncle (Fiona Shaw and Richard Griffiths, reduced more and more to comic relief as the series goes on).

One night, Harry is rescued by the titular Order of the Phoenix, a sort of wizarding world supergroup originally started by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) to combat Voldemort during his first rise, and resurrected again upon his return. Once at the Order's headquarters, the ancestral home of Harry's godfather Sirius Black (a charming, warm Gary Oldman), Harry reunites with Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint, Emma Watson) and promptly cops a rag about his lack of information. Thankfully, director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg have significantly cut down the amount of petulance Harry displays, as it was one of the worst aspects of the book.

After his vindication at an overblown and hostile trial, Harry returns to Hogwarts and learns that the wizard government, the Ministry of Magic, refuses to acknowledge Voldemort's return and has leaned on the press to tar Harry as a liar and Dumbledore as a potential usurper. To keep an eye on things, the Ministry sends party-line bureaucrat Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) to act as new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Umbridge is a nightmare in pink, and Staunton's performance is one of the highlights of the film. She is the embodiment of every baby-talking, condescending, control-freak teacher we've ever had, and as she gradually gains more and more power, we can hardly stand to see her on screen or hear her squeaky girlish voice. So effective is her portrayal, we can hardly wait for her to get her come-uppance. Incidentally, Umbridge's pink office, its walls festooned with commemorative plates adorned with leaping, mewling kittens, is a triumph of set design.

As the film goes on, Harry and Co. form an underground resistance to the repulsive Umbridge. Called 'Dumbledore's Army,' they meet regularly and Harry teaches them the defensive magic that the Ministry doesn't want them to know. Here, Radcliffe shines, capturing Harry's enthusiasm and good spirit far better than in past installments. Unfortunately, he and his young castmates are still not quite up to the task of conveying the more powerful negative emotions the film requires, though this is not a glaring fault. Judging by his fantastic performance in Equus in the West End this year, perhaps Radcliffe will be ready by the time the sixth film comes out next year.

Among the students in 'Dumbledore's Army' is Luna Lovegood, played by newcomer Evanna Lynch (a young fan found after an extensive open casting call). Lynch is a wonderful scene-stealer, playing Luna with a deft mix of New Agey addle-headedness and indefatigable optimism. Unfortunately, despite a decent amount of screentime, her character doesn't have as much to do as we might like. Indeed, although Goldenberg managed to pare down Rowling's novel into a short, largely concise screenplay, one of the shortcomings of this paring is that many supplementary characters get short shrift. We get one or two moments of characterization from new arrivals like Tonks (Natalia Tena) and Bellatrix Lestrange (played with gleeful venom by Helena Bonham Carter), and just as little from returning favorites like McGonagall (Dame Maggie Smith) and Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson), but not much more. While this is a necessary evil when adapting such a massive book for the screen, it does deny us some of the ambience of Rowling's world.

Otherwise, director Yates's first foray into big-screen filmmaking feels confident and well-paced. He does well in isolating Harry on screen when he's distrusted, contratsting well with the more flowing, cheerful scenes once he's begun to teach. Also, while there's a lot going on in OOtP, we never reach the breathless, dislocating pace of Goblet. Although the cinematic devices used to convey time's passage aren't as prettily effective as those employed by Alfonso Cuaron in Prisoner of Azkaban, they do the job well enough. And even though the script provides each supporting character with only moment or two, Yates direction helps each at least feel authentic and hints at greater depth below. Another negative, no fault of Yates or Goldenberg, is that elements which might have been cut out had this been a stand-alone film had to be left in to keep continuity with the final two films. These moments feel obvious and out of place, and deny a sense of resolution to a couple of side plots.

The film's cinematography, by Slawomir Idziak, is vivid and the camera movements are loose, although the colors look to be digitally desaturated to an extent and the film suffers some washout under bright lighting. Nicholas Hooper's score is sprightly, if uneven. He brings back the franchise's most familiar thematic material and employs it well. His original material ranges from brilliant, such as Umbridge's theme, to overly vibrant and distracting during the Order's flight. Similarly, the film's special effects are somewhat uneven. While the crotchety old house elf, Kreacher, looks wonderfully creepy, other CGI characters feel far less authentic. Most of the magic effects are suitable and eye-catching, even if they go far above and beyond those described in the novel.

Overall, Order of the Phoenix fits snugly into its place in the ever-darkening Harry Potter series. Some die-hard fans will no doubt be angered by many of the cuts, reattributions, and bizarre changes found here, but when looked at in the service of an efficient plot, it's hard to stay angry. The film provides Harry with the necessary ups and downs to continue his maturation process, and we begin to see hints of the man Harry will have to become. Despite a twee and mismanaged ending scene, OOtP never sinks to the depths of the "Gosh Darn It!" sentimentality found in the Chris Columbus-directed installments, and well it shouldn't: these aren't "kids' movies" anymore. Yes, Order has its faults, and isn't the BEST Potter film. But it's close, and is certainly good enough to keep us coming back for more.
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