*Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Tinseltown
After having read the first four Harry Potter novels in their entirety, I never made it through J. K. Rowling's fifth installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. There was nothing particularly wrong with the story Rowling was in full command of her characters and her universe but the sense of magical discovery that permeated the early stories had been all but swept away. In its place was the tale of a 15-year-old Harry whose defining characteristic was that he was just so ... angry.
I didn't get it. But director David Yates clearly did.
After the events of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has plenty to be angry about. He has witnessed the death of classmate Cedric Diggory at the hands of the revived Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), and has spent a summer alone on Privet Drive without any news of what is transpiring in its aftermath.
When he finally returns to the wizard world, he discovers that the Ministry of Magic has rejected his version of what went down, launching a media campaign insisting that Voldemort's return is fiction conjured by Harry, Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and those loyal to him the Voldemort-battling veterans of the Order of the Phoenix.
Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, taking over for Steve Kloves, has to wrangle a lot of material into what turns out to be the shortest of the Potter films. He's wise enough to spend plenty of time with Dolores Umbridge, the Ministry of Magic operative sent to Hogwart's as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher to keep an eye on things.
Imelda Staunton brilliantly plays Umbridge as a tittering but nasty bureaucrat/ideologue, and part of a sly political allegory about paranoid institutions willing to do anything to protect their own power. It's part of the tension that makes the Potter world of Order of the Phoenix so much darker: Harry's growing realization that authority figures aren't inherently worthy of respect.
But Yates and Goldenberg prove most effective at streamlining the story into an exploration of Harry's evolving sense of family. The opening shot finds Harry alone in a playground swing, taunted by his hated cousin Dudley, one of his few blood relatives. Harry's bitterness comes also from his sense of isolation, but only because it takes him so long to understand that family isn't solely defined by blood.
This is, of course, also an adventure, and Yates despite a rsum drawn largely from BBC television productions proves more than capable of handling the big moments. If he and Goldenberg prove clumsy anywhere, it's in their attempt to pack in elements from the book without having enough time to develop them. The Potter faithful are a demanding bunch, and the filmmakers occasionally seem unsure how to combine the story they want to tell with the story they think they're expected to tell.
Yet, with an unexpected directorial flair, Yates has managed to take a blockbuster fantasy and craft a dark, coming-of-age drama. That's the story Rowling was trying to tell in the first place, and the one I resisted until the film was able to strip it down to its essentials.
The final image of Harry, a lovely bookend to the first shot, finds him a bit more at peace. But when the result is such a rich narrative, the angry Harry can return should he need to any time he wants. firstname.lastname@example.org