Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is eight-hundred-plus pages of Harry at his teen-angstiest, Hogwarts at its darkest, and life at its most maddeningly unfair. David Yates’s movie adaptation captures all of this, surgically snipping subplots to build on the main emotional themes of the book: Harry’s pathological distrust of authority, his emergence as a leader, and his doomed relationship with godfather Sirius Black.
Order of the Phoenix welcomes both headliners and newcomers to the expanded cast. Imelda Staunton proves a perfect fit for the unctuous Professor Umbridge, by turns sweetly poisonous, disarmingly frumpy, and utterly commanding. Helena Bonham Carter is another standout, wholly inhabiting Bellatrix Lestrange’s snarling lunacy (despite her relatively brief screen time) and adding a sizable amount of menace to the final showdown. As Luna Lovegood, Evanna Lynch adds some spice to the familiar gang with comically spacey delivery and an air of sufficient compassion and otherworldliness to warrant her occasional insights.
With such a plethora of new faces, most returning characters necessarily take a back seat. Gary Oldman as Sirius is convincingly parental in his few scenes but only slightly unstable, as the movie dwells less on his forced quarantine than does the book, eliminating most of the foreshadowing that predicates his fate. Snape (Alan Rickman) teaches legilimency with sinister sibilance, and Fred and George (Jason and Oliver Phelps) depart Hogwarts with a bang (and some much-needed laughs), but the remaining teachers and students, and even the main trio, fade into the background — often for the best, as Hermione (Emma Watson) and Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) in particular seem to operate on a single level of shrill anxiety. Throughout, the focus is on Harry — as a teacher, as a moody teen, and as Sirius’s grateful godson. Daniel Radcliffe continues to grow as an actor and ably carries the movie with a shifting mix of anger, self-doubt, and determination.
Though none of the special effects are quite as awe-inspiring as those created for the fourth movie’s Triwizard Tournament, they get the job done, re-creating the familiar Hogwarts of the previous movies with few new flourishes but all the old magic. Hagrid’s “little” brother Grawp, a digitally created giant, is introduced in one of the movie’s more extraneous subplots; the Voldemort-sympathizing house elf Kreacher is another character who seems to be included solely for the sake of demonstrating CGI prowess. As in previous movies, generic seasonal shots attempt to convey the passage of time with only marginal success; by the end of the movie, there’s little sense that a year has passed.
Despite this inevitable hiccup, Yates preserves and streamlines the main trajectory of the plot remarkably well. Nearly expelled over the summer for saving his noxious cousin from dementors, Harry returns to a Hogwarts fully under the thumb of the Ministry of Magic, which refuses to acknowledge Voldemort’s return. Forbidden to learn defensive spells, the students form Dumbledore’s Army, a makeshift Defense against the Dark Arts class that Harry teaches, flexing his large-scale leadership skills for the first time. (The class is also well-used as a forum for establishing the curses, fighting techniques, and physical laws of magic used later in the movie.) Meanwhile, the psychic connection between Harry and Voldemort grows stronger, exacerbating Harry’s frustration at not being allowed to join the Order of the Phoenix and fight the Dark Lord directly. It all culminates in a battle where both the Order and Dumbledore’s Army confront the Death Eaters at the Ministry of Magic.
This battle, the centerpiece of the movie, is simply spectacular: the Department of Mysteries is a high-ceilinged vault of gleaming black marble, creepy and confusing, and the room of prophecies seems to go on forever, the tall shelves of glowing orbs casting an eerie light on the action and allowing for plenty of hide-and-seek suspense before all hell breaks loose. When it does, curses fly right and left in artful chaos, building tension up to the climactic arrival of Voldemort.
This is not to say that the directorial choices surrounding the climax are without fault. Certainly the psychology can become obvious even by Rowling’s standards, with Harry forcing Voldemort to relinquish control of his body with the over-the-top, “I feel sorry for you” after telling him he’ll never know love or friendship. In fact, the movie wears its moral message on its sleeve throughout, even adding black (for Death Eaters) and white (Order of the Phoenix) vapor trails to track the rapidly Apparating wizards during the climactic battle. As in the book, the explanation of the prophecy’s power is unsatisfactory. And after Harry loses Sirius, the movie winds down far too hastily with a barrage of platitudes and brooding stares.
Still, this fifth film installment has a continuity and direction that only the fourth approached, and it rarely tries to sanitize the source’s dark content, even to the point of having Harry attempt the Cruciatus curse. It continues to track Harry’s growth as a character, and effectively trims the boarding school aspects of the story to the benefit of the epic fantasy plot. And, though the merits of translating book to film, individual vision to communal interpretation, may be debated endlessly, all those waiting with bated breath for the final book will enjoy this opportunity to spend just a little more time with Harry.