A Bewitching Brew Of Thrills and Slapstick
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Worried -- aren't we? -- that Harry Potter might cast his final spell in Book 7. But as many fans anguish over the possible demise of their hero, they can take entertaining solace in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," one of the most pleasurable films in the series.
"The Order of the Phoenix" offers a passel of darkly compelling distractions. And in Daniel Radcliffe, Potterphiles can still enjoy the bespectacled, wiry hero, as he contends with the bureaucratic evil of the Ministry of Magic, the prospect of his nemesis Lord Voldemort's return and his first romantic kiss--with Cho (Katie Leung), the demure student who's clearly sweet on him.
(We'll presumably know Harry's ultimate fate July 21 with the publication of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the seventh and "final" book in J.K. Rowling's popular series.)
Leaner than its cinematic predecessors at 138 minutes, the fifth Potter film has trimmed Rowling's garrulous, character-crowded novel (at 870 pages, it's her chunkiest installment) into an urgently paced thriller that modulates adroitly between psychological darkness and cartoonish slapstick. But director David Yates, a British filmmaker who formerly worked in television, and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, both newcomers to the "Harry" franchise, have not cut away the story's powerful thematic underpinnings.
The story is built around the hidebound Ministry of Magic, which is in the business of keeping the truth from its wizard population. (Audiences can infer any number of contemporary parallels.) The granite, impassive faces of the ministry's council, as its members listen unsympathetically to Harry's testimony about the impending threat of Voldemort, are more menacing than any special-effects evil the dark prince might perform.
We don't get as much meaningful time as we might like with Harry's inner circle--his mates Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). But that's because the story focuses on so many provocative characters and creatures -- those statuesque centaurs, for instance, and a certain lovable giant in the woods. The best character of all may be newcomer Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), a chilly emissary from the ministry who joins Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft to spy on Harry and his headmaster, Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon).
Dolores's organization does not believe Harry's contention that Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is marshaling his deadly forces again. So Dolores, a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, has come to discredit Dumbledore and stifle Harry. Staunton's brilliant performance is a frosty mixture of arch sanctimoniousness and Maggie Thatcher steel. It made this reviewer remember Umbridges from his own English boarding school upbringing. (Ms. B, the mathematics teacher, who handed out detentions with that soft, silky voice -- a sort of velvet-gloved executioner. And Ms. M., the French teacher, who liked to display her leathery hand to classes as a permanent warning to pay attention.)
Staunton is part of an embarrassment of riches among the predominantly British cast. Silkily funereal Alan Rickman, as Severus Snape, makes contempt seem like a fashion statement. Gary Oldman is wonderfully sensitive as Harry's protective godfather Sirius Black. And Emma Thompson conjures up Sybil Trelawney, the school's resident goofball. Such actors could make an ordinary drama seem as though it dripped directly from the nib of Shakespeare. But "Order of the Phoenix" is a ripping good story, and that magnifies the pleasure of watching these great actors work.
The camera, which seems to be attached to the wings of a majestic owl, takes audiences on a soaring, swooping tour through the corridors of Hogwarts, above its gothic turrets, in the upper rafters of the foreboding Ministry of Magic hearing room, and over the serpentine bends of the River Thames. It makes for a heady summer treat, experiencing the aerial exhilaration of life as a wizard, where so many things are possible.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (138 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and frightening images.