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This Harry's heavy

The movie version of the fifth Harry Potter novel may well be the most prosaic so far. This, at the outset, doesn't sound at all like the best thing one can say about any movie. And it is not to say that "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" doesn't provide you with as much spectacle and visual thrills as the four Potter movies before it.

But given that "Order of the Phoenix" is the darkest, most densely plotted and distressingly nuanced of J.K. Rowling's novels - up till now, anyway - there's no way that a diligently faithful film adaptation could avoid coming across thick and heavy.

Of course, if you've read all the books and seen all the movies up to this point, you may not mind the extra weight. But a newcomer to the Potter chronicles making his or her acquaintance with this film may be forgiven for wondering where the magic is; not just the transfigurations, sparkling explosions and assorted phantasmagoria (which "Order of the Phoenix" has in fair abundance), but the sense of wonder and transport that helped make Rowling's books into a global cultural phenomenon.

"Order of the Phoenix" represents the point in the Potter epic where the fun really ends, once and for all, for our bespectacled hero (Daniel Radcliffe). Harry's now at that vulnerable point in adolescence where he doesn't necessarily need to be in the crosshairs of a malevolent uber-sorcerer to feel awkward, lonely and resentful at various hours of the day.

What makes matters worse is that not only is that aforementioned evil sorcerer Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) bearing down on Harry, but there are few beyond Harry's best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) who believe his warning that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named once again threatens civilization.

In fact, the Ministry of Magic has worked itself into such a manic state of denial that it has not only discredited Harry through the tabloids, it has also installed a priggish, treacherous teacher named Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Her job is to put the hammer down on the kind of advanced magic coursework that could protect the school and its students from Voldemort's looming terrors.

It's a scenario whose progression depends as much on back-room intrigue as it does on flying broomsticks and mythological creatures. Director David Yates, best known for his work on an award-winning BBC mini-series, "State of Play," adroitly moves "Order of the Phoenix's" complicated tale through its often-agonizing twists and turns. Much like Harry, the movie is a flurry of jolting mood swings. It fascinates without being a whole lot of fun, except in too-brief sporadic moments.

If there's joy and magic to be found in "Order of the Phoenix," it's in the performances, especially Staunton's deliciously sadistic meanie. Radcliffe, meanwhile, has ripened into a resourceful leading man who can hold his own with Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Brendan Gleeson, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith and the other grand old pros who have hung with the franchise up till now. Ten days from now, we'll know how it all - ultimately - turns out for Harry and Hogwarts with Rowling's seventh and purportedly last Potter novel. If this movie does nothing but whet our appetites for the denouement, it's worth the candle.

 

(2 1/2 STARS) HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (PG-13) The best of the Potter novels is transformed into the densest of the Potter movies. Novices may be confounded, but fans will be pleased, especially with the casting of Imelda Staunton as the odious teacher Dolores Umbridge. The rest of the gang - from Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson to Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon and Alan Rickman - is present and accounted for. Directed by David Yates. 2:18 (violence, frightening images). At area theaters.

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