If you're not hot for Harry onscreen, watch out for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth of the seven Potter books to be filmed to date. It will hook you good and keep you riveted. The candyass aspect of the first two films — Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in 2001 and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets a year later — was replaced by heat and resonance with 2004's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when Mexican master Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) took over the directing reigns from the prosaic Chris Columbus. Director Mike Newell held the line in 2005's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But it's the lesser known David Yates, behind such British TV dramas as Sex Traffic and State of Play, who truly raises the bar with this fifth installment. There's a new humanity to the story now. The fact that that Yates will start filming Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince in September is good news indeed. For it's Yates, following Rowling's lead, who lets the shadows invade life at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where computer-generated elves, talking spiders and losing a Quidditch match are the least of Harry's problems. A sense of foreboding gives the film a pulse-quickening urgency. With the publication of the last of the series (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) on July 21st, Harry's triumph or defeat at the hands of the evil Lord Voldemort is sure to replace the Sopranos finale as pop culture's Topic A, making Order of the Phoenix a must-see.
Yates starts the film, benefiting from a potent script by Michael Goldenberg, with a near-documentary realism when Harry and his cousin Dudley are attacked by Dementors in a park near the suburban home where Harry lives when he's not at Hogwarts. There's a fresh sense here of life lived not imagined. Trouble ensues when Harry is threatened with expulsion by the Ministry of Magic since he used magic outside of school to defeat the enemy. The threat hides a deeper plot against Harry and his mentor, Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). Harry's claims that the Dark Prince, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned is seen as a ploy to overthrow the Ministry. It's then that Harry meets his toughest adversary yet, a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Don't be fooled that she turns out to be the diminutive, mousy Dolores Umbridge. As written by Rowling and played by the magnificent Imelda Staunton, Dolores is the personification of bureaucracy as evil. With her rules, prejudices and steely smile, Dolores is a kind of Dick Cheney in skirts. Staunton is a devastating blend of mirth and menace. Not for a second will you take your eyes off of her.
No wonder Harry and his friends build an army to fight her. One of the joys of this film is watching Daniel Radcliffe, 17, grow so impressively into the role of Harry. He digs deep into the character and into Harry's nightmares. It's a sensational performance, touching all the bases from tender (Harry's kiss with Cho Chang, played by the lovely Katie Leung) to fearful (the dreams of death that wake him up in a cold sweat). This is the film where the actors we've watched through five films seem to blossom and mature before our eyes. Among Harry's core group, Emma Watson paints a striking portrait of emerging womanhood as Hermoine Granger. And blimey if Rupert Grint doesn't storm the barricades of boyishness to find something emergent, touching and vital in Ron Weasley.
All the actors excel, notably Gary Oldman as Sirius Black and Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, but it's the tale itself that hurtles the movie along. That momentum carries you over the film's few rough patches. Order of the Phoenix, the best of the series so far, has the laughs, the jitters and the juice to make even nonbelievers wild about Harry.