The story begins just as the previous four, with Harry on the verge of returning to Hogwarts for the coming school year. He is still haunted by the events of The Goblet of Fire, just a few months ago from his point of view, and not only figuratively — Harry and Dudley, his bully of a cousin, are attacked by a pair of Dementors not far from home, forcing Harry to break with wizard etiquette and use a magical Patronus charm to chase them off. As a result Harry is expelled from Hogwarts, though Headmaster Dumbledore appeals to the Ministry of Magic and Harry is granted a review. Representatives from the secretive Order of the Phoenix arrive to rescue him from his muggle family and take him to the Ministry’s secret headquarters in London, where Dumbledore helps to convince the council to reinstate Harry to Hogwarts. Harry is once again the center of a controversy in the magical world, as it seems his claim that Voldemort has returned has been met with widespread skepticism, especially by the weak and corrupt Minister Cornelius Fudge.
Finally returning to Hogwarts with his loyal sidekicks Ron and Hermione, Harry finds that the Minister has appointed one of his undersecretaries, Dolores Umbridge, to the perennially vacant post of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and that his good friend gamekeeper Hagrid has taken a mysterious leave of absence. Umbridge is soon promoted to the post of Grand Inquisitor, over the objections of Dumbledore, in order to quell the rumors of Voldemort’s return and bring the students more in line with the Ministry’s expectations. She issues an increasingly draconian series of decrees, each of which is nailed to a wall by Dickensian groundskeeper Mr. Filch, forbidding students from spreading gossip, taking part in unapproved extracurricular activities, and coming within eight inches of the opposite sex. The scenes of Umbridge as unswervingly loyal servant of a clueless, incompetent establishment are the most satirical yet for the Potter series.
Umbridge is played by Imelda Staunton, who becomes the latest distinguished British actor to take a turn in the Harry Potter franchise. Also new this time is Helena Bonham Carter as escaped lunatic and ally to Voldemort, Bellatrix Lestrange. Making welcome returns to the cast are two of the standouts from The Prisoner of Azkaban, Gary Oldman as Harry’s godfather Sirius Black, and David Thewlis as lycanthrope/former Hogwarts professor Remus Lupin. Oldman has several scenes with Daniel Radcliffe as Harry that are among the best in the film; Thewlis, sadly, is only on hand for two crucial scenes, one at the start and one near the end — he was so excellent as Lupin in The Prisoner of Azkaban, it’s a shame he couldn’t have had a larger role in this. One character who does benefit from a beefier than usual part is Severus Snape, incomparably played by Alan Rickman at his terse, deadpan finest. Effectively relegated to a cameo in the last film, here Snape is given the task of training Harry to fight off Voldemort’s invasions into his mind, and gets to play some crucial scenes with Harry, including a telling one where we learn that Harry’s father tormented young Snape when both were students at Hogwarts.
Michael Gambon really comes into his own as Dumbledore this time around, too. He inherited the role in The Prisoner of Azkaban from the late Richard Harris and has been making it his own bit by bit ever since. Where Harris portrayed Dumbledore as a clever old man with a twinkle in his eye, Gambon plays him with a bit more of a wink. His deep, droll voice is perfect for scenes like Harry’s hearing before the Ministry, when Dumbledore announces himself with his full name, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, or when he informs the officers of the Ministry who have come to Hogwarts to arrest him that he has no intention of going quietly moments before disappearing with his pet phoenix in a burst of flame.
Throughout his year at Hogwarts, Harry is haunted by visions of Voldemort. In order to protect themselves from the threat posed by Voldemort, Harry, Ron and Hermione secretly form their own version of the Order of the Phoenix at the school, meeting in a secret room so that Harry can teach them offensive and defensive spells. Eventually Harry and his allies, calling themselves Dumbledore’s Army, are spurred to action by a vision of Sirius Black being tortured for information by Voldemort. They fly to the Ministry’s headquarters in London and enter the Department of Mysteries, a seemingly endless warehouse with rows and rows of crystal balls stacked on shelves reaching to the high ceiling, where they discover that the vision was a trap set by the Death Eaters to lure Harry, so that he can find a prophecy coveted by Voldemort.
Harry and his friends resist as best they can, and are soon joined in the fight by Sirius and the rest of the Order of the Phoenix. We get a full-on wizard fight, with the Order vanquishing the Death Eaters (though not without casualties). Outside the main battle, Harry once again faces Voldemort, only this time most of the battle takes place inside his head. There’s also the Harry Potter equivalent of a light-saber duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore before Minister Fudge shows up just in time to see the Dark Lord make his escape. Finally convinced Harry has been telling the truth all along, Fudge announces to the magical world that Voldemort has indeed returned.
There’s so much to love in this movie. It’s so full of life and energy that it doesn’t feel the least bit like a middle episode in a series. More than any of the others, this film plays as ominous and consequential — finally, after the long build-up of the last four episodes, some really serious shit starts to go down. There are dark days for Harry and his buddies, with still darker days to come. And yet it’s never pompous or pretentious like a Lord of the Rings film; it maintains a typically British sense of gallows humor throughout, and balances the comic with the gravely serious in ways that remind me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel on TV a few years back. It’s the first time on a Potter film for both screenwriter Michael Goldenberg and director David Yates, but you’d never know it from their confident and lucid work here. I had hoped Prisoner of Azkaban director Alfonso Cuaron would return to the franchise before the end, but it’s not the end of the world if he doesn’t, as Yates seems to have learned his lessons well, even borrowing the lovely “push through the window glass” effect favored by Cuaron in his installment.
There are moments that stand out, too, both funny and powerful. I love the unintimidated way Dumbledore refers to Voldemort as “Tom” when they meet near the end, and I love Harry’s silent scream as he is held back by Lupin following a tragic turn in the climactic battle. I love the odd conversations Harry and others have with new character Luna Lovegood, and the honest, self-effacing speech Harry gives his fellow students when they meet in Hogsmeade to form their “army.” I love seeing Ron’s older brothers Fred and George pull off what must be the best senior prank possible for a student at Hogwarts.
When the first Harry Potter film opened in 2001, I was surprised at how good it was. When I enjoyed its sequel even more, I considered myself lucky, and luckier still when the third film was better yet. The fourth film was good, but a step down from its immediate predecessor, so I figured it was the beginning of the inevitable decline. The fifth film, based on one of the least-liked of the novels, adapted by a screenwriter unfamiliar with the material and helmed by an untried director, shaped up to be nothing special. How it exceeded my every expectation. It’s thrilling, it’s funny, it’s wonderfully moving — it’s the best film of the series. By this point the heroes of most other film franchises have become diluted parodies of their former selves. Not Harry Potter; after five films, he’s just now hitting his stride.