The students at Hogwarts leave youthful hijinks behind once and for all in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” Considerably grimmer and grittier than the previous pictures in the phenomenally successful series, new entry finds the young charges’ head-on collision with adolescence taking a backseat to their sober confrontation with unvarnished evil. Pottermania will reach a peak in July with the nearly simultaneous release of the fifth film and the seventh and final book, and only commercial concern for Warner Bros. may be that, after the second or third week, curiosity about the concluding tome could overshadow interest in the film.
Extravagantly produced in the expected manner, pic nevertheless marks a notable departure in tone from those that preceded it. From the opening scene, portents of bad tidings ahead hang over everyone and everything connected to the wizarding world, even as the magical establishment insists there is no threat at large in the land.
Altered feel this time around stems in large measure from the new blood recruited to push the franchise into ever-darker domains. Director David Yates, heretofore known mostly for his television work (and already engaged to helm the sixth film); screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, replacing series perennial Steve Kloves; and composer Nicholas Hooper, whose vigorously dramatic music uses only a smidgen of John Williams’ themes, make the most decisive difference in steering the focus away from flights of fancy and in-house intrigue in favor of elaborate and sometimes heavy-handed foreshadowing of the inevitable showdown between Harry and Lord Voldemort.
Concentrated focus results in an unsettling mood and dramatic scenes of unusual intensity. But condensing the book, which at 870 pages is the longest J.K. Rowling has written, into the shortest film in the series has come at a price. Many viewers won’t at all mind that this is the first “Potter” picture without a Quidditch match, nor that house elves and cutesy ghosts are largely absent as well.
But more serious is the diminishment of the myriad intrigues among individuals and factions that comprise so much of the stories’ delightfully complicated fabric. Interplay detailing the fluctuating relationships involving Harry, Hermione, Ron (particularly slighted here), Cho Chang and intriguing newcomer Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) is sacrificed in favor of repeated group scenes of Harry teaching his clandestine band of teenage warriors the finer points of wand work. Classroom scenes are scanted and a sense of the school year passing is minute, giving the film a flattened-out feel compared to the wondrous eventfulness of Mike Newell’s “Goblet of Fire,” the last and most successful series installment.
Current yarn commences at the end of a parched English summer, when Harry (Daniel Radcliffe, back with a clean-cut look) lands in hot water with the Ministry of Magic for issuing a forbidden curse to fend off an attack by two Dementors. Harry’s Inquisition-like hearing, where he narrowly escapes expulsion from Hogwarts thanks to the unexpected intervention of Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), sets out the central conflict: The Ministry refuses to accept Harry’s contention that Lord Voldemort is back and, in fact, is prepared to put all its propaganda muscle into discrediting Harry and Dumbledore.
To this end, the Ministry imposes one of its own as this year’s professor of the Dark Arts. Dolores Umbridge is one of Rowling’s most delicious — and resonantly named — creations; a stout, toad-like woman reliably clad in shades of pink, Umbridge is a party functionary par excellence, a rules-and-regulations fanatic with a whim of iron who cloaks her proscriptive edicts in dulcet tones and manufactured smiles. Imelda Staunton was the perfect choice for the part and unsurprisingly emerges as one of the film’s greatest pleasures.
Umbridge wastes no time clamping down on Harry, the other kids and the Hogwarts staff; assuming more power virtually by the day, she puts her most outspoken student in painful detention, prohibits the learning of practical curses, begins firing wayward teachers and ultimately confronts Dumbledore to assert complete Ministry control over the school.
In response, Harry assembles an underground rebel band known as Dumbledore’s Army. The intense way these passages are staged lead one to believe they are the scenes that most engaged the interest of director Yates, who seems to relish the image of Harry and Hermione as nascent revolutionary leaders.
Similarly prominent are Harry’s renewed relationship with his beloved godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), hiding away in the secret family homestead in London, and his nightmarish visions of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), with whom he increasingly feels a disturbingly strong connection. It gets so bad that he is forced to receive private tutoring from the dreaded Professor Snape, whose distaste for the task could not be more pronounced. Until shortly before the end, Snape has very little to do, but Alan Rickman may have outdone himself; seldom has an actor done more with less than he does here.
Climactic showdown between Harry’s crew and Voldemort’s henchmen, led by Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs), is strikingly played out in a huge Ministry storeroom filled with shelved grapefruit-sized globes containing prophecies. One such sphere concerning Harry is of vital interest to Voldemort, and performing especially well on his behalf is Sirius’ malignant cousin Bellatrix Lestrange, embodied by Helena Bonham Carter with a particularly maniacal glee.
It doesn’t take much of a leap to connect the ill winds afflicting Hogwarts, along with the sweaty anticipation of inevitable conflict, with the present situation in the world at large. The metaphors are all implicit and have a lot to do with just growing up and facing unpleasant realities, but they increasingly contribute to the feeling of nervousness and unease creeping into the series. It will be interesting to see if general anticipation for the two remaining films holds fast or tails off once the epic series’ conclusion is revealed in the final book.