The darkest and most threatening of the five Potter films, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is also the only series entry outside of the third, Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, that feels like the product of a vivid cinematic imagination and not just a faithful transposition of a kid-lit bestseller. The director, David Yates, brings an energy and efficiency to Potter Land—this is the series’ fastest-moving (and, at a mere 139 minutes, shortest) installment—and infuses the heretofore storybook atmosphere with a grittiness that’s as startling to our senses as it is to young Mr. Potter’s.
Credit J.K. Rowling, too: Order of the Phoenix gives us the most compelling premise for a Potter picture yet, because it’s the one least chained to an elaborate, mechanized plot. In narrative terms, not that much happens, but as for Harry’s emotional journey—well, that’s nearly epic. Still reeling from his standoff with the resurrected Lord Voldemort at the end of 2005’s Goblet of Fire, and from the death of his classmate Cedric Diggory, the already melancholic Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is, at the start of the new film, downright disconsolate—a poster child for teen Prozac. Just when it seems like things couldn’t get any worse, a couple of fearsome beasties come along to shake Harry out of his malaise . . . by nearly turning him into dinner.
Old Voldy, it seems, is stirring again, though few outside of the movie’s titular cabal—a secret society formed by Hogwarts’ headmaster, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), with the express purpose of vanquishing Voldemort—will acknowledge it. The officious Minister of Magic has taken to planting anti-Potter screeds in the The Daily Prophet. He also installs his loyal emissary (Imelda Staunton) to prune Hogwarts’ faculty of subversive elements and restrict the students’ freedoms. This smiling sadist in fuchsia couture renders coy the protestation of Potter producer David Heyman that Order of the Phoenix isn’t a political allegory. This is, after all, a movie in which ineffectual bureaucrats refuse to acknowledge an imminent threat to their people—and their power. Make of that what you will.
Order of the Phoenix satisfies in all of the conventional ways: There are appearances by your favorite series regulars and CGI wonderments galore. The movie’s most memorable encounters, however, take place not within Hogwarts, but upon the more perilous terrain of Harry’s consciousness, which is a veritable minefield of fear, self-loathing, and pubescent confusion. Goblet of Fire—the first PG-13 Potter pic—tried for a similar feeling of teenage Sturm und Drang, but Order of the Phoenix sees adolescence as something altogether graver: It’s the moment at which schoolboy frolic gives way to an understanding of the evil that men do in the world. Rowling has said repeatedly that she will retire all things Potter following the publication of the upcoming seventh novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It’s a pity, for there’s every indication that Harry is on track for a whopper of a midlife crisis.