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MOVIE: Is "Order of the Phoenix" worthwhile for fans and nonfans alike?
A shawl of dread is draped around "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," a genuine sense of encroaching doom that gives this latest installment of J.K. Rowling's epic yarn a welcome immediacy.
As one largely indifferent to the whole Harry Potter thing, I can happily report to being thoroughly entertained by this new Potter. Maybe it's because this one seems more grown up than the others.
Fans of the series needn't worry. They'll get their requisite dose of movie magic and eye-teasing visuals, and the ever-expanding cast of Potter regulars are professional, if not exactly inspirational.
But director David Yates (best known for his work in British TV, especially "State of Play" and "The Girl in the Café") and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg both are new to the series, and they've brought a fresh perspective to settings and characters that, frankly, I was beginning to tire of.
It's not like they're turning their backs on the earlier work of directors Chris Columbus, Mike Newell and Alfonso Cuaron. Rather, the creepiness of this latest film reflects the growing darkness of the books themselves, which have evolved from childlike wonder and enthusiasm to real concerns with mortality.
At the same time, series star Daniel Radcliffe has matured from a just-OK child actor to a performer of substance. Apparently his run of "Equus" on the London stage was no fluke -- the kid shows genuine depth here, nicely delineating both Harry's teenage angst ("I just feel so angry all the time."... "What if I'm becoming bad?") and augmenting it with his understandable fears of the growing power of What's-His-Name, that murderous wizard who over the last few films has been working to achieve corporeal form.
Intimations of loss and danger are everywhere this time around. The picture begins with an alarming sequence in which Harry and his oafish cousin Dudley are attacked by ghostly dementors. Only by resorting to magic can Harry defeat the creatures, but that brings him up on charges of using his powers in front of a Muggle.
Being hauled before a tribunal of witches and wizards (many of them apparently working for What's-His-Name) is traumatic enough, but "Phoenix" also finds Harry cut off from his longtime mentor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), who gives our boy the cold shoulder just when he needs support.
Nor does Hogwarts provide much of a refuge for our put-upon hero. Dumbledore has been deposed and his place taken by the chirpy Dolores Umbridge (a deliciously despicable Imelda Staunton).
This passive/aggressive harridan in pink looks like your doting aunt but has all the warmth of Nurse Ratched in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Before long, the walls are covered with Umbridge's new rules designed to make the students virtual slaves.
Even more alarming, she outlaws practical magic in favor of a theoretical study of the subject. It's a curriculum guaranteed to leave the young sorcerers weak and untested for the final showdown with You-Know-Who. Harry finds himself organizing an army of students who train in secret; kind of like an illegal ROTC unit.
Apart from his old pals Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), about the only support Harry gets is from a clandestine cabal of wizards -- among them his guardian angel Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) and "Mad-Eye" Moody (Brendan Gleeson) -- who help our boy steer his way through the treacherous ways of wizardly deceit. They comprise the Order of the Phoenix of the title.
In addition to Umbridge, we meet a couple of other new characters. Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) is a pale student with a far-away stare and a propensity for making odd proclamations. Makes you wonder if her mama didn't enliven her pregnancy by dropping acid.
Far more sinister is Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), a homicidal rag doll freed from prison to do the bidding of That Bad Guy. Bellatrix is nuts and very dangerous, but at the same time kind of sexy. Interesting combo.
There are a few laughs in "Phoenix," but not many. This is serious stuff, and before it's all over, one character will have died.
But here's the neat thing about this whole grand project: the "Potter" audience has been growing up, too. The youngsters who began reading the first book in elementary school are now in high school, and they've developed the patience to appreciate a film that's about fear and emotional discomfort rather than dragons and Quidditch. They've got a lot invested in Harry Potter, and far from running out of steam, it seems the series is willing to take them to new and unsettling places.