Gone are any traces of childish wonder and prepubescent discovery in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the series’s once buoyant disposition now obliterated by dread, powerlessness, and crushing responsibility. British TV director David Yates’s adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s fifth Potter adventure is doom and gloom and then some, pitting the teenage wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) against a fascistic government-appointed Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge), a Hogwarts student body warped by media slander into believing he is lying about Lord Voldemort’s (Ralph Fiennes) return, and his own burgeoning fury at his Chosen One status. Pallid, morose grays encircle Harry like a noose, a lethal pallor in keeping with the film’s replacement of the franchise’s familiar juvenilia (Quidditch, pal Ron’s wisecracks) with an adult sensibility marked by enraged indignation. If only that anger received suitable resolution, Order of the Phoenix might have approached the superlative heights of Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban. Regrettably, though, Michael Goldenberg’s herky-jerky script isn’t up to the task, failing to overcome the material’s status as a way station on the road to Deathly Hallows, as well as excising just enough crucial information to make the climax resound with all the force of a percussive triangle chime.
Harry begins his latest venture in a righteously foul mood, spying signs of the impending apocalypse in playground rides (shades of Terminator 2) and underground tunnels illuminated by flickering lights (traces of Irréversible?), as well as in a pair of ghoulish Dementors whom he repels, an act which lands him in front of the Ministry of Justice for improper use of magic. There, paranoia reigns supreme (thanks to Voldemort duplicity), and while Harry finds himself exonerated and free to continue studies, Big Brother sends Big Sister Umbridge to Hogwarts to make sure no rabble is roused. Repressive decrees quickly become the norm, delivered with a smile and a high-pitched squeak by Staunton, who magnificently embodies Rowling’s villain as an autocratic and sadistic cat lady-grandma decked out in dainty hats and pink cashmere sweaters adorned with ostentatious broaches. She’s the film’s bilious nexus, repugnant for her disciplinary torture and her attempts to codify and institutionalize intolerance and inequality from a seemingly unassailable position of power. When she’s on screen, Yates’s saga is legitimately maddening, tapping into feelings of subjugation and persecution with a primacy so potent that it makes one long for even less of the tale’s peripheral enchantments, potions, and Weasley Brother candy concoctions.
Like Rowling’s novel, however, Umbridge is merely one component of this overstuffed Potter chapter, and although much of the surrounding detritus has been trimmed to moderate levels, the wealth of stuff going on in Order of the Phoenix nonetheless proves a wearisome burden. There’s Harry’s romance with nondescript Cho Chang (Katie Leung) and relationship with kindred outsider Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione’s (Emma Watson) dawning affections for each other and fractured rapport with Harry, Sirius Black’s (Gary Oldman) work with the titular Order to mount a resistance to Voldemort, and the covert defensive magic lessons Harry gives to students behind Umbridge’s back. The importance of these plot strands varies but their perfunctory treatment is by and large uniform, and they mainly serve to muddy the narrative waters with so many details that next to nothing seems vital. Multifaceted thematic concerns are a significant reason why the Potter series speaks to a diverse global audience, but the disjointedness of the film seems primarily the result of trying to serve two masters—Rowling’s text and the cinema—and eventually choosing to kowtow to the former at the expense of the latter.
Still, Yates partially atones for Mike Newell’s unexceptional Goblet of Fire, attacking Harry with a flurry of superb flash-frame nightmares in which Voldemort’s noseless visage coldly stares at him from a train platform and—more tellingly—from a mirror. As with its predecessors, the chief battle is within, and an impressive Radcliffe manages grown-up anxieties with endearing authenticity even as the story habitually turns its attention away from his emergence into adulthood and toward ho-hum CG giants, centaurs, and broom flights over the Thames. Radcliffe’s gaggle of illustrious British co-stars help bring a modicum of substantiality and class to even the most trivial moment. No cast member, however, can rectify the general stasis of Rowling’s book, in which only minimal progress is made in Harry’s maturation, nor overshadow the fact that by critically truncating a key subplot about an object hidden within the Ministry of Information (envisioned as a bureaucratic hellhole of dark hallways lined with towering shelves), the film fatally weakens its conclusion’s punch. And moreover, now that Harry has ditched childhood, it seems high time the franchise also dispatches with its immature and draggy literal-mindedness, here found in everything from the opening’s angry storm clouds to Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) enlightening pupil-adversary Harry about the big bad world with Disney Channel clichés like “Life’s not fair!”