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There's nary a Quidditch match to be found in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Warner Bros.), the fifth and antepenultimate installment in the series based on J.K. Rowling's monster-selling fantasy novels. What with the now-15-year-old Harry's boiling hormones and sullen demeanor, not to mention a possible return of the noseless world-destroyer Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the mood around Hogwarts is far too grim, and the stakes of the impending battle too high, to lighten things up with a game of broomstick polo.
The Order of the Phoenix book did find time amid all the existential gloom to throw in a Quidditch match, and a rollicking one at that. But the notion of faithfulness to the source material changes a bit when your source is 870 pages long. Phoenix is the longest of the Harry Potter books so far, while the movie version is the shortest of the movies, at two hours and 18 minutes. The director, David Yates, best known for his fine work in British television, is no Alfonso Cuarón (who made Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban such an enthralling head rush), but he does an elegant job of rolling out this exposition-heavy middle chapter of the saga. With a plot dominated by political infighting at the Ministry of Magic, Order of the Phoenix could easily have been as dull as one of those Star Wars prequels, a CGI-enhanced version of congressional coverage on C-SPAN. Instead, the movie is brisk and lively, if not exactly action-packed.
The most arresting special effect in the Harry Potter film franchise has been one that requires no technology at all: watching Daniel Radcliffe grow from a round-faced, owl-eyed 10-year-old to the rangy, high-strung young man he's become. Radcliffe is a notoriously serious and hardworking actor—in his spare time between Potter movies, he's not clubbing with Lindsay Lohan but appearing as the tormented lead in the West End production of Equus. At times, that work ethic gets in his way here: He projects Harry's teen angst with a somber earnestness that's occasionally strained. But that seriousness can also work on the character's behalf. Harry Potter isn't Ferris Bueller; he's a tough and lonely orphan who's had to figure out early that growing up is no ride on a Nimbus 2000.
Any fan of the books knows the story already, and I don't want to ruin it for those that don't, but briefly: In Harry and his pals' fifth year at Hogwarts, the stalwart headmaster, Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), is in the process of being overthrown by Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), a Ministry-appointed prig who wants to whip the students into shape for their upcoming wizardry exams, the OWLs. Her blind allegiance to standardized testing, not to mention her relentless chipping away at civil liberties, recall a certain U.S. president, but the analogy is never overplayed. Sublimely outfitted with fuzzy pink suits and an impressive collection of decorative kitten plates, Dolores Umbridge is an inspired villainess, and Staunton has the time of her life in the role. The whole Hogwarts faculty is so beautifully cast, it reinforces the American impression that in Britain great actors must be piled up on the side of the road in heaps. David Thewlis, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and Emma Thompson are all superb, even if they all get a frustratingly short time on-screen this go-round. Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, playing Harry's loyal friends Hermione and Ron, inhabit their roles as comfortably by now as old vaudevillians.
While Umbridge pursues her no-wizard-left-behind policy of educational reform, trouble of a more metaphysical nature is brewing. The enemy of all good wizards, He Who Must Not Be Named (but who is now more or less casually referred to as Lord Voldemort) has begun amassing his army of Death Eaters for a fresh assault. A prophecy predicts that Harry will one day have to face the Dark Lord one-on-one (hence the nail-biting about the last book in the series, due July 21). In the meantime, there are still plenty of satisfying smackdowns to be had: The one between Dumbledore and Voldemort at the end of this film is visually arresting, even if magic battles, with all their wand-waving and spell-saying, work better on paper than on film.
As in all the Potter movies so far, the production design (here by Stuart Craig, who worked on two of the previous films) is beyond genius, from the living paintings to the Deco-on-drugs Ministry corridors to the town houses that split in half to reveal hidden buildings inside. And the Hogwarts school, densely imagined and lovingly created from the ground up, is one of the great examples of movie architecture, up there with Kane's Xanadu and the Bates Motel. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix pulls off a feat that would have been impossible in my own adolescence: I left it dying for school to start again.