“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the fifth installment of the Potter series, is a lot like a graceful kid in junior high who manages to navigate puberty relatively unscathed. “Phoenix” director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, both newcomers to the series, could have faltered awkwardly as they attempted to condense more than 800 pages of text into 138 minutes.
Instead, what hit theaters at midnight is a beautiful adaptation of author J.K. Rowling’s slightly shaky material. “Phoenix” is the most disjointed novel of the lot, suffering from growing pains as the story moves even further into the deeper, darker territory of good versus evil.
The fifth movie extracts all of what works best from its paper counterpart and discards the rubbish. It’s the kind of coming-of-age story that could probably succeed even if it weren’t riding the wave of massive success from the previous four movies.
“Phoenix” is by miles the darkest of the Harry Potter flicks so far. The cinematography alone, dominated by a creepy palette of grays and blues, is dank enough to inspire a forboding sort of depression. This is the teen angst chapter of the Potter saga with a grim story line that gets a lift from the ongoing romance of Ron and Hermione and Harry’s longing for his crush, Cho Chang.
But something awful lurks on the horizon.
That something awful is the return of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), whose increasing power has driven a spike through the wizarding world. The Ministry of Magic, portrayed this time around as a borderline Orwellian government, vehemently denies that the Dark Lord is back. But the Hogwarts crew knows better.
Most of the movie chronicles Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) as they prepare for another face-off with Voldemort and his crew of Death Eaters, enlisting the help of able-bodied — or able-magicked — classmates along the way. The old gang of wizarding adults has mobilized, too, and it’s clear the rosy days of quidditch games and excursions to Hogsmeade are long gone.
Meanwhile, a paranoid ministry installs crony Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as the oh-so-evil Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor at Hogwarts so she can keep an eye on Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), who is suspected of mobilizing an army to overtake the government.
“Phoenix” succeeds best when it delves into the increasingly disturbing connection between Harry and Voldemort. The two learn to read each other’s thoughts and dreams, setting the stage for a chilling, heartbreaking final confrontation in which Harry’s already tragic past is jerked painfully into the present, reopening wounds that have barely had a chance to heal.
“Phoenix” plays host to a brilliant new cast of characters. Big-screen newcomer Evanna Lynch offers a spot-on portrayal of Luna Lovegood, a spacy wizard-tabloid devotee who’s convinced that mischievous magical creatures are the true cause of what appears to be absentmindedness. Staunton’s venomous, despotic Umbridge catapults viewers back into the classroom of their evil middle school math teachers — the ones they often pondered burning in effigy.
Helena Bonham Carter is a delicious Bellatrix Lestrange, but she doesn’t get enough screen time. That’s one of the few problems in the film: great characters who get pushed into the shadows while Harry’s angst is in the limelight.
Overall, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is flat-out fantastic. It’s exciting and action-packed, and has special effects with IMAX impact. “Phoenix” accomplishes what none of the other movies has quite managed before: It’s a real adult movie.
Harry and the gang have grown up. So have the films.