'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix'

"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is the darkest of the Harry Potter films, and the briefest.

It features more yummy turns by the cream of British character actors, with Imelda Staunton and Helena Bonham Carter as plum new additions to the cast.

The movie feels the most British of all the Potter films, foggy and quaint and claustrophobic -- crowded halls, crowded streets, cozy little rooms.

But "Order of the Phoenix" is a murky movie in more ways than one, all dark conspiracies, torture, threats and long, long interludes of an increasingly angry Harry training his fellow wizards because Hogwarts is under new and malevolent management.

Where's the fun?

It feels for all the world like what it is: a table-setting for the last two Potter novels-into-films, pages turning into scenes that take us toward graduation or some other decisive conclusion.

British TV director David Yates (a cost-cutting measure?) begins wonderfully, setting us firmly in Harry's "real" world of the bullying (and still growing) cousin and a suburbia just remote enough to make a hormonal young wizard feel totally out of the loop.

Which he is. The Daily Prophet is tearing into him daily. "Ministry of Magic" forces are rallying against him. And he's having nightmares about the boy, Cedric Diggory, who died right in front of him in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

Just then, he's expelled from Hogwarts. An inquisition clears him, but even so, nobody but headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and his school chums Ron, Hermione and Neville believe that he has actually wrestled with Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).

Couple that with the fact that everybody else's growth spurt has made him the runt of his class (all the other kids in the cast could dunk over Daniel Radcliffe now), and well, a boy could develop anger issues.

"You know who" is on everybody's mind, now. The Ministry sends an officious martinet, played by Staunton as if she's auditioning for "The Queen II," to take over Dark Arts Defense at Hogwarts and see to it that nobody believes Harry when he cries that "You know who" is running amok.

So Harry runs his own version of that class on the sly. He knows a war is coming. A secret cabal, the Order of the Phoenix, with all the best and brightest teacher-wizards (including Sirius Black, nicely played by Gary Oldman), has warned him. Harry is teaching spells and wand-wielding, training the "good" wizard army to resist Voldemort, who has unleashed his minions.

Yes, all those years of SPF 45 have paid off for Helena Bonham Carter, who makes a perfectly pale, perfectly appalling henchwoman, Bellatrix Lestrange.

Harry's love interest is barely an afterthought. Harry's big make-out moment isn't set up well and isn't the least bit romantic. There's a prophecy to protect and a coup to plan at school. More magical digital creatures are introduced into the gloom (can't really see them) and there are a couple of serious throw-downs.

But while the acting and general level of cast engagement in the story are an improvement over "Goblet of Fire," the joylessness of the enterprise weighs it down. The movie is all clutter in its dull second act. Whatever breezy fun there is in young wizards zipping down a neon-lit River Thames in the opening, and whatever heartfelt nostalgia there is in the flashback clips near the end -- showing us how far we and Harry have come -- that middle hour just drags.

If it weren't for the presence of Alan Rickman, curling his tongue around every syllable like the British Christopher Walken that he is, the movie would have gone an hour without a break in the glum mood. Rickman's funereal teacher, Snape, has the comic spark the movie lacks.

"I. . . may. . . vomit."

So, yes, we're set up for "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." But there isn't enough Rickman or Brendan Gleeson (as the rowdy Mad Eye Moody) to make this Phoenix rise from the merely watchable (the curse of this summer's sequels) and take flight.

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