Review: 'Order of the Phoenix' charmingly dark 

Fans of flashy Quidditch tournaments and magical classroom mishaps, be warned: Harry Potter has finally reached the end of the innocence.

Indeed, "The Order of the Phoenix" is the bespectacled young wizard’s darkest, most harrowing journey to date, and easily his most satisfying. Far removed from the safe, superficial spectacle of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone," it delivers all the expected wonders of a semester at Hogwarts without sacrificing the keen edge that distinguishes J.K. Rowling’s books from more toothless children’s fare.

While Rowling has never hesitated to explore the sinister realities facing her wand-waving heroes — on the contrary, she seems to relish subjecting even her most beloved characters to the cruelest fates — the filmmakers charged with adapting her prose have often been loath to follow suit. Luckily, the fifth time’s the charm.

Resisting the urge to dazzle with frivolous displays of magic — you know, for the kids — director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg dispense with the training wheels and race into ominous territory. "The Boy Who Lived" is becoming a man, whether he likes it or not, and he is faced with the daunting task of preventing an impending holocaust, orchestrated by a familiar nemesis, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is up to the challenge, of course, but never before has he found himself so bereft of allies and friends. Branded liars by those who refuse to acknowledge the return of Voldemort, he and Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) have become personae non gratae at Hogwarts. Worse yet, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, who embraces her villainous turn with demented glee), a sadistic bureaucrat, has taken over as de facto headmistress, paralyzing the student body with a series of regulations designed to punish all who oppose her bloody reign. (Yes, bloody — she makes the kids cut themselves when they misbehave.)

Although "The Order of the Phoenix" retains some of the sweetness that informed its predecessors, this is a much darker chapter, a waking nightmare in which the threat presented by Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters, long rumored, has become a stark reality.

Harry, for one, has never seemed so conflicted. Asked to save the world for the umpteenth time, he is finally beginning to feel the strain, and that’s a good thing. Rarely before has he seemed so vulnerable, so innately human, and it is his doubts that make him such an endearing, enduring hero. He’s a magic man, no doubt, but one with the complicated soul of a Muggle.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ***½

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Imelda Staunton, Gary Oldman, Ralph Fiennes

Written by Michael Goldenberg, based on the book by J.K. Rowling

Directed by David Yates

Rated PG-13

Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes


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