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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Dir. David Yates (Warner Bros.) - 4 stars

A skilled plastic surgeon employs the precision of science and the artistry of instinct to create the best possible version of what is on the table in front of him. He doesn’t create, per se—he refashions, repurposes, and refurbishes, and if he’s exceptionally good, the finished product looks as natural as nature itself.

And after watching a midnight premiere showing of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” it seems that plastic surgery and film directing are not so different. The surgical team of director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg performed beautifully, turning the fifth and flabbiest book of the “Harry Potter” series into the tightest, firmest, most attractive film yet.

Yates and Goldenberg had quite a task in front of them when they set out to make the latest “Potter” film: turn this very dark and very, very long book into a film that would keep pre-teen butts in their seats. So what did they do? They cut—deeply. But impeccably.

The film opens with a lightning fast exposition, compressing the first 58 pages of the book into what could hardly be more than five minutes of screen time. Yates soon relaxes his pace, but not once does he allow a bit of slack. His cuts are broad, but his work is seamless, and for once, a “Harry Potter” film feels neither rushed nor uneven.

The film’s cinematographer and editor, Slawomir Idziak and Mark Day, get the credit for smoothing over what could have been unsightly scars by proving the old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Throw film composer Nicholas Hooper into that category, too, for his deeply felt (if occasionally intrusive) score. Their technique of nipping excess plot from denser portions of the film and grafting them onto thinner places is an ingenious way to make even dramatic edits blend right in.

From the opening shot—a panoramic pan down a parched suburban landscape—it is clear that this is no ordinary “Potter” film. Yates has only one other American directing credit, the much-lauded “The Girl in the Café,” which aired on HBO. In fact, according to the Internet Movie Database, he has done only one other feature-length film amid a slew of short films and movies for television. Not only does Yates put his own stylish stamp on the franchise—so intricate and personal the story seems to blossom rather than unreel—he shows more control over pace and rhythm than anyone of his more experienced predecessors.

Yates’ team is equally fresh—”Phoenix” is Goldenberg’s first “Harry Potter” film, and the first not written by Steve Kloves. The resumes of Hooper and Day look remarkably similar to that of Yates, including many of the same projects for English television and “The Girl in the Café.” Regardless of how many times you’ve read the book, watching their film is like experiencing “Order of the Phoenix” for the first time.

The creative team may be new, but the cast is old, and Yates manages to pull the most mature performances yet from his young stars. True, they are growing up, and (with the exception of Emma Watson, who is far too lovely to be playing the bushy-haired Hermione) looking more like author J. K. Rowling’s character descriptions with each passing installment. But no matter how experienced or gifted the cast, chemistry and sensitivity like this can’t happen without a strong director.

Daniel Radcliffe deserves special mention for finally—in his fifth crack at the title role—delivering a consistently satisfying performance. His talent has been evident from the beginning of the series, but until this film, he has had both hot and cold moments. No longer. This time he is 100 percent hot (in more ways than one).

Imelda Staunton is exceptional as devil-in-a-pink-sweater Dolores Umbridge, Hogwarts’ latest Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. When the camera lingers on her spoon dipping into a pot of faintly pink sugar, the sweet stuff has never looked more deadly. Rupert Grint also makes his best showing to date as Ron Weasley, and Helena Bonham Carter is electric and nightmarish as Azkaban-escapee Bellatrix Lestrange.

Times are grim for the members and friends of the Order of the Phoenix, the group assembled to fight the evil Lord Voldemort and his henchmen, the Death Eaters, and the film teeters on the edge of despair. Harry is lonely and wounded at the beginning of the film, and even at the height of his happiness, embraced by Ron and Hermione and leading the group they call Dumbledore’s Army, Yates reminds us that happiness is only temporary by snapping the film back down into darkness and danger. Joy and sorrow seem to exist in the same body, at the same moment. The only place to find strength is in unity, and even that is fragile.

It is Sirius Black, played touchingly by Gary Oldham, who gets right to the heart of the film: “We’ve all got both light and dark inside of us. What matters is what we choose to act on. That’s what makes us who we are.”

—Staff writer Jillian J. Goodman can be reached at jjgoodm@fas.harvard.edu.
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