Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by David Yates

With Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, and every A-list British actor you ever heard of

Rated PG-13

It’s not so much the sun as it is a nuclear fireball burning down over the neat suburban tracts of Little Whinging, Surrey, as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix opens. It’s apocalyptically hot, and director David Yates uses our hindsight about recent killer European heat waves as the jumping-off for the grittiest, grimmest, most astonishingly significant Harry Potter film yet.

It’s hot, and Harry is miserable with loneliness, and this is when Dementors choose to strike, those hellish soul-eaters, the dread guardians of the wizard prison of Azkaban. What they’re doing in Little Whinging is a mystery at the moment (unless you’ve read the book, of course), but Yates’ unwillingness to go easy on us grownups — never mind the kiddies — is immediately apparent. Oh, there is magic here, but there’s nothing sweet or luminous about it. This is magic as power, as an expression of recognizable human impulses both noble and terrible, as something as real and as stark as the grungy, graffiti-scrawled pedestrian tunnel, harsh lit in gray-green, in which the Dementors attack Harry and his cousin Dudley.

Yates — he’s new to the Potter series; he’ll be directing No. 6, The Half-Blood Prince, too — is an artist who makes television dramas about the trafficking of human beings for sexual exploitation, and about politically tinged murder. He has not left that bleak ethos behind just because he’s making a “children’s movie” here … and I would hesitate to bring young kids to see this one. This may be the best straight-up horror movie of the year; I was riveted by the sinister sophistication of it.

The film is not relentlessly intense; there are moments of deft humor and rewarding loveliness. Harry introduces Mr. Weasley to the experience of riding the Underground, inverting the sense of wonder you’d expect from a movie like this: the fantastical folk marveling at such ordinary miracles as we Muggles take for granted. Harry shares his first kiss with a pretty classmate — it’s an awkward moment, sure, but these are not overly sexual Hollywoodized brats; of course it’s awkward.

And yet even the light moments ring with the gloomy force of the larger story. Harry is with Mr. Weasley (Mark Williams) on the subway because he — Harry — is being hauled up before the Ministry of Magic for the crime of being underage and using magic in the presence of a Muggle; no matter that he was saving the life of his cousin from the Dementors. The wizard newspaper The Daily Prophet is full of the denials from the Ministry that You-Know-Who has returned, that Harry is a liar for saying so (picking up the story from the last film, when Voldemort, the Osama Bin Laden of the wizarding world, popped back up with a vengeance), and that a new headmaster has been appointed at Hogwarts to stamp down on the rebellion simmering there among the students, who want to learn how to defend themselves against Voldemort and his evil minions.

Wizards zoom on broomsticks over the nighttime skies of London, past the Houses of Parliament; this is the real world, our real world, and Phoenix — adapted by screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, also new to the Potter series — resounds with relevance. “Laws can be changed if necessary,” Minster of Magic Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy) thunders, railing endlessly and meaninglessly about “security” as an excuse for dismissing democracy and reason, echoing too much of what we in the Muggle world have heard of late. Dogmatism and accusations of “disloyalty” sound through Hogwarts from the lips of prim Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), a terror in pink, who gathers little brownshirts like villain-in-waiting Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) to do her bidding. (Her office is a place of terrible cuteness, dictatorial rhymes-with-witchiness masquerading as matronly innocuousness.) Voldemort himself (Ralph Fiennes) eschews those fusty wizard robes. In his sharp black suit, he is a frightful vision of contemporary corporate malice.

Meanwhile, Harry worries that he is more like Voldemort than anyone will tell him. By Phoenix‘s end, he is driven to the edge of insanity, building to a confrontation with You-Know-Who that is as sorrowfully enthralling as anything I’ve ever seen on film. As Harry gets older and more conflicted, and Daniel Radcliffe matures into a fine young actor upon whose shoulders falls the tricky task of giving expression to Harry’s wounded inner psyche — which Radcliffe handles very nicely here — Harry’s isolation, even among his closest Hogwarts friends, is more poignant, and more disturbing, than ever. And all of this from a very young man who’s just barely enjoyed his first kiss.

That’s the real and palpable horror here: not the magic spells and the scary creatures, but the shadows that lurk in one seemingly ordinary boy, and that lurk all around us in the Muggle world. Escapism? Hah. Order of the Phoenix is as grounded in authenticity as movies get.