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Wild about ‘Harry Potter’ No. 5

‘Order of the Phoenix’ has the best villain of the bunch in Dolores Umbridge. By John Hartl

No. 5 in the Harry Potter film series, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” arrives at an odd moment —on the eve of the publication of  “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s fantasy phenomenon.

At first glance, it would appear that there’s something anticlimactic about the new film, partly because speculation about No. 7 has become semi-hysterical. No. 5 would seem to be old news before it opens. (No. 6,  “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince,” won’t arrive in theaters until late 2008.)

But the new “Harry” turns out to be one of the best entries in the series — mostly because of a villain who is the scariest and funniest heavy to date. The smugly nasty Professor Dolores Umbridge, who brings an especially ruthless form of McCarthyism to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is played by Imelda Staunton with a sense of glee that quickly becomes irresistible.

Consistently dressed in headache-inducing pink outfits, Staunton’s shrewdly ambitious Umbridge simply takes over the school, manipulating the weaker officials, sending veteran teachers packing (Emma Thompson does a droll cameo as the most public victim) and challenging even the powerful Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon).

“I will have order!” becomes her cry.

In an astonishingly short time, she’s insisting that all school clubs be disbanded, that boy and girl students stay at least eight inches from each other, and that only she knows how and what to teach young wizards. This fundamentalist killjoy, who turns utterances like “severe” and “so silly of me” into chilling threats, has a soft spot only for cats, who are heard meowing from several surround speakers — provided your theater has Dolby digital.

An Oscar nominee for her performance as a doomed British abortionist in “Vera Drake,” Staunton might earn another Academy nod for this very different yet equally satisfying performance. If so, she’d be the first actor in the series to earn such recognition. You can’t help missing this monster when she’s not around.

While it reassembles most of the original cast, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” introduces a fresh behind-the-cameras team. David Yates, the new director, is best-known for his television work, including the Emmy-winning cable movie, “The Girl in the Café.” The new screenwriter, Michael Goldenberg, co-wrote the 1997 movie of Carl Sagan’s “Contact” and the 2003 remake of “Peter Pan.”

Rowling’s book is nearly 900 pages long, so the filmmakers have a lot of plot to deal with — some of it concerning a test of the integrity of the boy wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), who claims to have encountered the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) in the previous movie, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” When he’s temporarily expelled from Hogwarts, he can count on few allies; among them are his old pals, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson).

Loyalty quickly becomes a major concern. Harry’s insistence that everyone’s threatened by the return of Voldemort (or “He Who Must Not Be Named”) turns the boy into a pariah. Persecuted by Umbridge, feeling “more alone than ever” and “angry all the time,” he grows up in a hurry, deciding to listen to his instincts and to act upon them.

As he reportedly demonstrated in a recent London stage production of “Equus,” Radcliffe is now more than ready for adult roles. The more isolated Harry becomes, the more soulful Radcliffe seems. As Harry grows less sure of himself, Radcliffe becomes more assured in his handling of the character’s complexities. He’s never seemed so vulnerable — and he’s never before suggested such authority.

Harry helps to form a group of an anti-Umbridge rebels who call themselves “Dumbledore’s Army,” even though Dumbledore appears to greet them with indifference. Much of the story is driven by Harry’s self-doubt — and his fear that he and his fellow students can’t compete with the forces of darkness, which also include the venomous Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs).

Voldemort’s perfunctory appearance late in the film is a bit of a letdown, as are the familiar wizardly fireworks (presented in 3-D in IMAX theaters) that are meant to liven up the concluding action sequences. Yates and Goldenberg are clearly more interested in the shifting relationships between Harry and his friends, especially Hermione, who declares at one strained moment that one of her pals has “all the emotional range of a teaspoon.”

Also contributing to the ambiguous nature of the final scenes are Alan Rickman as the cranky Severus Snape and Gary Oldman as Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black — who sometimes makes himself visible to Harry and occasionally appears as the voice of animated ashes in a fireplace.

Will this fifth “Harry Potter” enjoy the same success as previous installments? Unlike such franchises as “Lord of the Rings,” the Potter series has lost audiences since the first film appeared six years ago. No. 3, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (2004) — the most acclaimed and personal entry — made about $200 million less than the first film, Chris Columbus’ “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001).

Yet the No. 4 film, Mike Newell’s “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (2005), reversed the downward trend, by doing better than No. 2, Columbus’ “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (2002), and performing almost as well as No. 1. At this point, it’s difficult to tell exactly what Potter fans are looking for.

A film that’s faithful to the source? No. 1, for all its cinematic stodginess, seems to have won that round. More interested in dynamic filmmaking than pleasing the base of devoted readers? No. 3 is clearly the winner, even if it lost at the box office. Most successful as a compromise? That would be Newell’s No. 4.

Best villain? My guess is that No. 5 will win that one hands-down. Voldemort may be showcased as the ferocious madman of No. 4 and No. 5, but he’s more abstract bogeyman than genuine menace. He just never seems as dangerous as the quietly terrifying Miss Umbridge, who suggests a Cheshire-cat terrorist.