Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Gary Oldman, Jason Isaacs, Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson, Evanna Lynch, Matthew Lewis

Directed by: David Yates

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in the fifth instalment in the film series

Order of the Phoenix is not one of my favourite Harry Potter books. Roughly the length (and weight) of War and Peace, it's packed with pointless incident, tedious Quidditchery and a veritable overdose of teenage stroppiness, as JKR discovers the caps lock and lets Harry vent his spleen on every page in VERY LARGE LETTERS. There's a lot of talking (make that shouting) but not much actually happens.

So, while last year Mike Newell's challenge was to cram the action-packed Goblet of Fire into a film without missing out any good bits, David Yates's is to pull out from the tangled mess of the book enough plot strands to knit into a coherent movie. And in this he succeeds superbly. So gone are (hooray!) the Hogwarts house elves, the prefect stuff, most of Harry and Cho's soppy romance and (best of all) Quidditch and gone are (boo!) Firenze the centaur and (worst of all) St Mungo's – I was looking forward to meeting up with Gilderoy Lockhart once more, not to mention seeing what the visionary design team could come up with for the set.

Because this for me has been one of the greatest joys of the Harry Potter films: seeing the wizarding world and the characters that inhabit it 'for real'. None of the films have ever disappointed in the creation of magical locations: from Hagrid's hut to the Quidditch World Cup, all have been perfectly realised, and peopled by perfectly cast characters. And it's here that Order of the Phoenix really excels itself. Grimald Place, Azkaban, Dolores Umbridge's study: all are exactly as I'd pictured them, only better.

Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

As for the casting, Imelda Staunton was born to play the new Defence the Dark Arts teacher and 'High Inquisitor', Dolores Umbridge, sent by the increasingly desperate and paranoid Minister for Magic to infiltrate Hogwarts and root out rebellion and sedition. With her sickly sweet smile, sugar pink twin-sets and twisted line in torture and interrogation, she's like Pol Pot in Hyacinth Bouquet's wardrobe, and she definitely steals the show – although she comes up from some stiff competition from Helena Bonham Carter, as deranged Deatheater Bellatrix LeStrange, and Gary Oldman, who, with barely any screen time at all, manages to convey all the damaged complexities of Harry's charismatic godfather Sirius Black.

As for the boy wizard himself, the transformation from the wooden child of Harry Potters 1 and 2 to the confident, accomplished and genuinely gifted actor we see here is nothing short of, well, magical. If this is what a stint naked on the London stage does for one's talent, I think all actors should give it a go. Likewise, dear old Neville (Matthew Lewis) is really starting to come into his own, newby Evanna Lynch is far too pretty for new age space cadet Luna Lovegood, but has an aura of otherworldly luminescence that makes her perfect for the role.

Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix LeStrange in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The newly-honed plot gallops along at a fair old pace, but without the jerkiness that characterised the previous film and made it so obvious, even to non-HP aficionados, that a lot was getting missed out. Instead, it focuses on the gathering storm clouds as the wizarding world divides over the reappearance (or not) of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the sickly-sweet malevolence of Umbridge, the underground rebellion of the Hogwarts students as they assemble their own army to fight the dark forces, and Harry's increasing isolation as his connection to the Dark Lord strengthens and his terrible key role in the unfolding epic battle becomes increasingly clear.

Gary Oldman as Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The final battle, trimmed of all the extraneous incidents which drag it out for pages in the book, is kept short, sharp and frenzied, and as a result is utterly gripping. (Oh, and watch out for Sirius Black's swashbuckling wand-wielding – only Gary Oldman would have translated his character's suppressed desire for action so into such exuberant flamboyance.)

It is, of course, impossible to divorce the film from the book, or from its cinematic predecessors. As a standalone, it simply doesn't, er, stand up. But that doesn't prevent Harry Potter and the Order and the Phoenix from being a brilliantly envisaged piece of movie making, with any shortcomings in the plot more than made up for by fantastic performances, superb sets and special effects and an enchantingly observant attention to detail (Neville's plump, wriggling plant and Dudley Dursley's new chav wardrobe are just a couple of examples). It may not be as powerful as Prisoner of Azkaban, nor as action-packed as Goblet of Fire, but it's nevertheless a dark and delightful new chapter in the Harry Potter story.

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