Masterminded by Muggles

Harry Potter has amassed 12 hours of screen time, but real magic eludes him

<strong>Harry Potter

I was a latecomer to the whole Harry Potter phenomenon. Until a month ago, I thought Hogwarts was a condition treatable with antihistamines, and would have answered "Ron and Hermione" when faced with that popular pub-quiz question, "What were the real names of The Captain and Tennille?" Now, thanks to a small pile of DVDs, and help from my small pile of children, I can tell a Muggle from a Squib at forty paces. Though, after watching the fifth instalment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I still have no idea who Harry's personal trainer is, or how he finds time to work on his pecs.

Each Harry Potter film so far has had a unique selling point - the first one (Philosopher's Stone) being so bland that it is referred to as That Which Must Not Be Named, the third (Prisoner of Azkaban) being the only one that's really any cop, and so on. Order of the Phoenix will henceforth be known as the one in which Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) looks so incongruously burly that he really should be off taking peyote on his gap year. It is also, to the chagrin of grubby-kneed schoolboys everywhere, the one with the kiss.

The picture begins with a terrifying encounter between Harry and a pair of Dementors, the hooded wraiths that leach out your very soul through your mouth. But it's a different kind of face-sucking that marks a change here, with Harry deploying an age-old seduction technique on his classmate Cho Chang (Katie Leung) - namely, wait until she's at a low ebb and then slip her the tongue by way of consolation. I say it marks a change, but like most things in the Harry Potter films, any deviation from convention is cosmetic and fleeting. Harry's first smooch is quickly forgotten, as is poor Cho, who suffers the indignity of many a cinematic love interest before her, being exploited by the villains to gain leverage.

But then what can you do with characters this underwhelming? There is still so little chemistry between most of the cast that it feels as if everyone just met in rehearsal. Attempts have been made to ratchet up Harry's adolescent discontentment; he lands in court for casting spells in the presence of a Muggle (a non-magic person) and complains: "I feel so angry all the time." However, these cursory stabs at grittiness are belied by some telling oversights. Everyone wanders around fretting about Harry; for a group of teenagers, this lot have no autonomous life, no problems of their own. If the film-makers want to use Harry's story as a metaphor for the trauma of adolescence, they could at least add a few zits to his porcelain-smooth skin, which quickly comes to symbolise the film's own slick surface.

In this context, you can't help but root for the dark side, represented once again by the hideous Lord Voldemort, played by Ralph Fiennes with the aid of some of his leftover make-up from The English Patient. With his asthmatic wheezing and steamrollered face, Voldemort is pretty chilling. He also has no nose. How does he smell? Don't ask.

He's a pussycat next to Professor Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), a new teacher who arrives at Hogwarts with a shrill giggle, an endless supply of pink knitwear and a hidden agenda. She's like a tiny, poisonous marshmallow. Representing the Ministry of Magic, Umbridge gradually erodes her students' freedoms, imposing governmental policy on the classroom and undermining the headmaster, Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), until Harry and chums are forced to hold secret lessons to learn the skills that they need to defeat Voldemort.

The series has reached the unusual stage where actors of the calibre of Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman and David Thewlis appear in the background like beautifully upholstered furniture, doing little more than exuding classiness. This makes Staunton's forceful comic turn all the more welcome. The jolt of life she brings to Order of the Phoenix briefly helps you forget that the Harry Potter films still have yet to deliver much in the way of cinematic magic. Most of the 12 hours of screen time notched up so far bears all the hallmarks of having been masterminded by Muggles.

Pick of the week

Last Tango in Paris (18)
dir: Bernardo Bertolucci
Emotional drama from a time well before "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter".

Molière (12A)
dir: Laurent Tirard
Where did the playwright go when he disappeared from view in 1644?

Taxidermia (18)
dir: György Pálfi
Sex, violence and embalming (not simultaneously).

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Chavez: from hero to tyrant