Ten days after Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix opens, the ultimate outcome of our hero’s campaign against the nefarious Lord Voldemort will be revealed in the book world, where true Harry Potter fans reside. As trillions of readers are anxiously aware, J.K. Rowling’s seventh and final installment will have to make good on the harsh prophecy that ”either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.” In the movie world, meanwhile, the battle lines are just being drawn. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his classmates Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) are in their fifth year of study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And the weight of responsibility being laid on Harry — now quite believably embodied by the increasingly chiseled 17-year-old actor as a teenager with all the moods that come with the hormones — is enough to darken this fifth movie interpretation decisively.
Gone are the childish diversions of Quidditch matches and other jewel-toned visual manifestations of magical thinking, and in their place is an attitude of grim, adult risk taking. Under the circumstances, assigning the project to British TV director David Yates, who won awards for the 2003 BBC political thriller State of Play, is a shrewd choice. (Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg is also a newbie to the Potter franchise.) This episode spends time with the student gang as they practice wand work and imprecations (”Stupefy!”), and pauses for a sweet kiss between Harry and Cho Chang (Katie Leung), whose shy smile first fogged the young wizard’s glasses in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. We also meet Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), Harry’s pale and empathic new friend, and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), whose name suits this Azkaban Prison escapee’s style but underplays her sadism.
But for all the action — and there’s plenty of it, even if it’s only a portion of what was crammed into Rowling’s 870 pages — the most important stuff is what takes place in Harry’s head, where troubling visions, intensifying in clarity and dread, attest to the young man’s foretold connection to the evildoer most safely referred to as You-Know-Who. (You know who plays Voldemort, again, too: Ralph Fiennes, embracing his character’s malevolent noselessness with regal delight.) And therein lies a conundrum — of busyness and waiting — that The Order of the Phoenix can’t magically solve. The advances and setbacks pile up, but time hangs heavy. And that’s even after Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) puts Harry on trial for illegally using magic outside of school and Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) intervenes. After Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), entrusts his godson with new secrets. And after the students establish Dumbledore’s Army in preparation for Voldemortian Armageddon.
In the midst of such earthbound preparations, though, an image of menace upholstered in pink arrives to rock wizards and Muggles alike: the deliciously named Dolores Umbridge. Bullheaded in his insistence that Voldemort has not returned (despite Harry’s eyewitness report), Fudge installs Umbridge at Hogwarts to teach a strictly censored and quite useless version of Defense Against the Dark Arts. And she is as shockingly fascistic in her approach to old-fashioned values as she is amusingly dowdy. Rowling describes the woman’s voice as ”fluttery, girlish, high-pitched.” But a festive Imelda Staunton (memorably dressed in drab to star in Vera Drake) has other plans: Her showstopping Dolores slays her charges with pepperminty steeliness. ”Progress for the sake of progress must be discouraged!” this educator from hell proclaims.
With her wardrobe upgraded to suits and pillbox hats that, in a blander color, might entice Queen Elizabeth II (the Umbridge hairdo appears to be a direct homage), the character is a Pepto-Bismol-tinted bolt of energy — and political commentary — inspiring grand gestures from her costars. When Staunton’s Umbridge goes up against Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall, it’s a wonder the movie-set walls don’t crumble. As that singularly acidic potions teacher Severus Snape, Alan Rickman responds to the new blood by lacing his sneers with an even more flavorful degree of sourness. The flourishes don’t answer the question most on Potterites’ minds — who lives, who dies? — but they briefly stupefy. B+