There are two statements film reviewers are virtually obliged to make when greeting the latest Harry Potter. First: the new instalment is altogether darker, grittier, more adult than what’s gone before. Second: the kids improve with every outing and – guess what? – they’re the best they’ve been so far! So there, we’ve said it, and yes, yet again, both statements hold true. What we’d love to add – but can’t – is that the franchise gets a quality boost with each chapter. Harry Potter and the Order Of The Phoenix may be a marginal step-up from Goblet Of Fire, but it’s still a conspicuous dip from undisputed head-of-the-class Prisoner Of Azkaban.
The main problem for surprise-choice director David Yates (telly drama State Of Play) is JK Rowling´s fifth book, a meandering tome where little of consequence actually happens. And though Yates and his screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Contact) /have/ done a cracking job condensing JK’s blather, there’s still a sense of time-biding here, of waiting for all the magic-weavers, centaurs, house elves et al to just get on with that looming Voldemort smackdown.
Proceedings open less like a $150-million fantasy blockbuster than some grim ITV teen drama, Harry goaded into a ruck with his piggy cousin’s gang. Sorcery soon enters the fray, albeit in the form of a short, sharp Dementor attack – in a seedy underpass! The overcast mood persists when we return to Hogwarts, where students are banned from spell-casting under the prim watch of Dolores Umbrage (Imelda Staunton), a Stalinist spoilsport in a fluffy cardie. Meanwhile, mistrusted by his peers and scorned by his elders (for waving his wand in front of a Muggle), Harry’s feeling more isolated than ever. But it’s not all heavy weather: while secretly prepping the newly formed Dumbledore’s Army for upcoming war with the Dark Lord, our hero finds time for his first proper snog (a lingering lip-nosh that may rouse stomachs more than loins). As Potter comes of age, so too Master Radcliffe, evincing a brooding conviction we’d all but given up on.
As for the star-heavy line-up jostling for screen time, most are reduced to extended cameos, bar Gary Oldman (as the avuncular Sirius Black) and the superb Staunton. Helena Bonham Carter is another welcome new face as screechy weirdie Bellatrix Le Strange, though it’s Alan Rickman’s icy, contemptuous Snape who again stalks off with top wizarding honours.
All told, Phoenix is one of the stronger entries in the Potter cine-canon, fizzing with exceptional FX (apart from Hagrid’s giant sidekick Grawp, who looks like Jurassic Park never happened). Yates brings the story home at a relatively respectable run-time (shortest episode yet), and pulls off a couple of set-piece chillers, notably a climactic melee that’ll leave you craving his take on next year’s Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince. Which will be altogether darker, grittier, more adult that what’s gone before…