Just as Daniel Radcliffe has matured as an actor, the fifth Harry Potter franchise installment has graduated in scope toward a movie capable of entertaining adults and children alike. After so much critical hullabaloo about darkening the films, British director David Yates grabs the reins of J.K. Rowling's politically pertinent story line -- rendered for the screen by Michael Goldenberg ("Contact") and eschews the heavy comedy that has dragged the series in favor of drama. In "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" Harry's coming-of-age days are officially over when he becomes the ambivalent leader of a revolution at Hogwarts after an opportunistic Professor Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton of "Vera Drake") is appointed and tries to usurp power. Yates tosses in snappy thematic touches from films like "1984," "Brazil" and even "The Exorcist" to create a new brand of Potter rich with subtext.
The action kicks off with a gothic tone as storm clouds interrupt a playground confrontation between Harry and his ridiculing cousin Dudley. The inclement weather forebodes the arrival of two Dementors (death angels) who chase Harry and Dudley into a tunnel and begins to suck the life force from the two boys. Harry dispatches the vile creatures with his trusty wand, but soon pays a toll: a talking envelope arrives from the Ministry of Magic announcing his expulsion from Hogwarts for practicing magic in the presence of a Muggle. Harry is soon swept away by broomstick to the dingy secret headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, where Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) blesses his godson's continued fight against Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) with a knowing wink. But first Harry must endure an inquisition within the blackened corridors of the Ministry of Magic where Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) defends Harry's story about Voldemort's recent return.
Harry doesn't realize that his personal persecution is about to extend to his classmates under the fake smile of Hogwarts' new professor of the dark arts, Ms. Umbridge. In a running gag consistent with the evaporation of America's articles of its Constitution, Umbridge begins posting an increasing list of limitations on the students while firing trusted staff members, such as the daffy Sybil Trelawney (Emma Thompson). After replacing the student's practical textbook on magic with an elementary manual, Umbridge shows off her torturing talents by privately making Harry write "I must not tell lies" with blood that comes from the flesh of his left hand. Umbridge's openly political coup establishes the Ministry's control of the school by stealing liberty right out from under the noses of its well-intentioned staff, including Dumbledore.
It's in this turn of events that Harry convenes freedom-fighting magic classes for his appropriately named "Dumbledore's Army." Ultimately, the magic lessons serve to prepare Harry for an inevitable battle against Voldemort and his freaky assistants, Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter). The clandestine displays of wizardry allow for some enjoyable montages of wand-waving that pave the way for Harry to share an extended kiss with heartbreaker Cho Chang (Katie Leung).
You get the sense that "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is the culmination of efforts from a group of highly talented and rapidly aging actors who have more at stake this time around. Every performance, from such notables as Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman and the ever-surprising Imelda Staunton, carries an added dimension of personal significance. With director Yates already in preproduction on the next Potter movie ("Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"), it seems that the franchise may finally have arrived at its balance. Although marred by some inept editing by Mark Day, "The Order of the Phoenix" is the first of the series to resound as a multifaceted narrative that understands its own intentions. It's intelligent magic. (PG-13) 138 min. S