HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX directed by David Yates, written by Michael Goldenberg from the novel by J.K. Rowling, with Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes and Michael Gambon. 138 minutes. A Warner Bros release. Already playing. Rating: NNNN
The tag line for Harry Potter and The Order Of The Phoenix could be "Harry's back and he's pissed off!"
The fifth film in the series improves on its predecessors, an impressive feat given the challenges the filmmakers faced. It's based on a long "transitional" book that covers the period between the return of Harry's nemesis, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), and the outbreak of wizarding war. The primary villain is not a sorcerer (too bad) but a civil servant (yawn!). And most importantly, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) becomes a real person rather than a blank slate onto which young viewers can project themselves. Trouble is, Harry's 15, and a lot of 15-year-olds aren't very nice.
Harry's back at Hogwarts, where his fellow students think he's a liar and a show-off. Plagued by Professor Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), a Ministry of Magic spy, he's even cut off from his best friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). His only solace is his godfather, Sirius (Gary Oldman), the defence group he forms with some sympathetic students, and Cho Chang (Katie Leung), with whom he shares his first kiss.
David Yates's direction continues the innovative work of Alfonso Cuarón two pictures ago; this feels more like a movie than a filmed book. Staunton and Helena Bonham Carter (as Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange) are too attractive for their roles but bring beautifully different brands of evil to the control-freak bureaucrat and Voldemort's loyal henchwoman. Most of the details and plot points that have been altered or condensed from the book still work, and for the first time, the dialogue improves on J.K. Rowling's in a few places. (Sadly, writer Michael Goldenberg is a one-off. Steve Kloves, who wrote films one through four, will be back for number six.)
Particularly wonderful is the relationship of Harry and Sirius. Whether it's owing to Radcliffe's respect for Oldman or simply to Oldman's talent, the scenes between them ring true. While Radcliffe can't match the adults surrounding him, of the three main kids he has improved most as an actor.
But there's still something wrong. It's not that Ron's character assassination continues apace, or that Watson's take on smart, capable Hermione is "perpetually anxious," or that Fiennes still looks like himself under all the makeup, or even that Harry's final scene with Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is so truncated as to lose all its potency.
What's lacking is humour. There has always been at least one place in each book where I've laughed out loud; that hasn't happened once with the films. Yes, the stories are growing darker and, yes, this is a particularly unhappy time in Harry's life, but the filmmakers are overly sympathetic to their hero and have cut too much of his sense of fun and adventure.
This film has only a week to claim children's attention before the ink-and-paper Harry makes his final appearance. Maybe they'll be too blown away by the Hollywood special effects to realize some of the book's magic is missing.