Harry (Radcliffe) faces expulsion, as the Ministry Of Magic tries to quell claims that Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is back again.
Given that the science of cinema depends on the projection of light, the laws of physics limit how dark a film can be. A franchise that gets gloomier with each instalment, therefore, presents problems. But the darkness of the latest Harry Potter film is tempered by just enough humour - and more than enough action - to make it worth peering through the murk.
This is the first film where Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has lurked as a physical threat, tinting everything a darker shade of black. Regular Potterites know that He Who Must Not Be Named (but often is) is reborn, but the magical community refuses to credit Harry’s (Daniel Radcliffe) resurrection claims. So Harry faces isolation when he returns to Hogwarts and falls foul of new Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), all twin-sets and ruthless fanaticism.
From the opening Dementor attack a sense of menace steadily mounts. No sooner has Harry dealt with those soul-sucking monsters than he faces the equally soul-sucking ordeal of a Ministry Of Magic trial; no sooner is he back at Hogwarts than he’s cast adrift by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), faced with a moody giant (the film’s only CG-failure) and left to Umbridge’s not-so-tender mercies.
Much of the credit for the building tension goes to Staunton’s pathologically cheery bitch, a walking definition of justifiable homicide. But the stellar supporting cast all gleefully compete to steal scenes, to great effect. If the central trio are still locked into a holding pattern they’ll never quite break in these roles - Ron (Rupert Grint) mugging desperately; Hermione (Emma Watson) earnestly emoting and Radcliffe mired in heroic stiffness - the script at least allows them to grow a little. But the lion’s share of the plaudits must go to director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg. After all, it takes talented chefs to produce a fresh taste from over-familiar ingredients. Perhaps that’s why the journeyman Chris Columbus, after two faithful but plodding instalments, made way for directors of more élan - Cuarón, Newell and now Yates, who transforms the most bloated and miserable of the novels into a film that retains mood but not petulance and who, vitally, drives the plot towards its conclusion like it’s on rails.
That last act is the reward here, a series of breathtaking magical showdowns. Strikes and duels whip past in a flurry of physical and mental blows, with combatants piling into the fray, and one juicy match-off the franchise equivalent of Yoda’s lightsaber duel. Amid cackling baddies (especially Helena Bonham Carter’s crazy-haired Bellatrix Lestrange) and heroes teetering on the brink, there’s a moment of revelation. Potter isn’t just for kids - this is a proper, grown-up adventure. And that bodes well for the films to come.
It wont win new fans, but as Potter movies go, this is the most filmic of the lot, suspenseful and action-packed.