'Phoenix' rising: Harry Potter and the abridged tome

A trim film version of 'The Order of the Phoenix' boasts a fine performance by Daniel Radcliffe.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

If you are a Pottermaniac, this is the month for you. "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" opens today, and on July 21 the seventh and final Potter tome lands with a thud at your local bookstore.

Since the new movie is based on book No. 5, one wonders whether the reputedly dark book No. 7 will cast a pall over movie No. 6. On the other hand, if it's darkness you're looking for, "Order of the Phoenix" is the perfect pall. Unlike the other movies, which owned their share of the dark side, "Order of the Phoenix" downplays the festive classmate hubbub at Hogwarts in favor of a decidedly more sinister tone. This means no Quidditch matches.

Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) returned at the end of the last film, "Goblet of Fire," and so the stakes are considerably higher for Harry, who dodges repeated attempts on his life and, perhaps even scarier, has his first kiss.

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Since Harry, Hermione, and Ron are still being played by the same actors – Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, respectively – the series has its own built-in subtext: We are watching children grow into adolescents.

A case could be made that the series is one long encoded adolescent rite of passage, with all the authority-defying, hormone-raging storminess that comes with the territory. As in many a teenage fantasy, it is the young people who must teach their doddering elders the score. Specifically, Harry must convince the wizards that he really did encounter Voldemort and then, leading his secret band of students, do battle with the bad guy.

The film begins at the close of summer as Harry awaits his fifth year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Because he illegally used magic outside school, Harry is in danger of being expelled. Although headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) intervenes in what amounts to a kangaroo court engineered by Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), Harry is beset by nightmares.

His battle training is hampered by the fact that a new Dark Arts teacher has been installed at Hogwarts, Professor Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), whose Ministry-approved curriculum is woefully inadequate to the task. Umbridge is a marvelous addition to the series. Short and squat, clad in pink from head to toe, the aptly named Umbridge is a ferocious authoritarian who smiles and smiles – the worst kind. In a nice touch, her pink outfits get progressively darker. By the end, she's swathed in cerise.

Director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, both new to the series, have trimmed J. K. Rowlings's 870-page novel into a fairly well-paced 139 minutes – the shortest film in the series, though not the best. That honor goes to Alfonso Cuarón's "Prisoner of Azkaban," with Mike Newell's "Goblet of Fire" a respectable runner-up.

Cuarón, more than any of the other directors, drew out the lyricism and terror, and the great good humor, of the books. Yates, especially given the sinister subject matter on hand, does a rather workmanlike job of traffic-managing the action. But some of the magic effects are indeed magical, including a sequence featuring eerily white centaur-like creatures who can be perceived only by those who have looked upon death.

And although many of the regulars, including Hermione, Ron, and Alan Rickman's Professor Snape, are unaccountably skimped, Harry comes through loud and clear as a conflicted, edgy, avid young man. He's turned into EveryTeen.

Radcliffe, who received good reviews as the lead in "Equus" on the London stage during his downtime away from the series, actually gives a performance this time around. He doesn't just have the Harry Potter look – he's grown into the character. This may not be the most alluring reason to check out "Order of the Phoenix" but, given what lies in store for Harry, it bodes well. Grade: B

Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images.

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