It's an odd thing about the Harry Potter franchise: given that the films are based upon a series of books noted for their formulaic structure, and given that they are massively expensive blockbusters, one would suppose, if one knew nothing about them, that each entry would be more or less indistinguishable from the others except in incidentals. And yet, after the tedious first two, guided by the steady hand of the completely unimaginative Chris Columbus, each film in the series has been remarkably, even unrecognizably different: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets were dispassionate Hollywood pablum, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was a sparklingly dark fairy tale, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was Expressionist horror only slightly softened for tweens.

And now, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which I can only think of as "the British one." I'm not sure why: certainly, there has been no dearth of significant British actors in the series thus far (and with two films to go, I can't imagine that the producers will fail to cast the three or four people that so far, they've managed to skip), and the last film brought the franchise its first English director. But, as directed by David Yates (of whose work I've seen nothing, although I've heard the political thriller/procedural State of Play is extraordinary), there is a sensibility here that can only be thought of as British, a certain pragmatism and efficiency and tendency towards understatement that hasn't so far been a major factor in the films, although it positively oozes right of the page in the books (it strikes me that Britishness is what J.K. Rowling has in place of authorial voice).

Really, though, I suspect that any real or perceived anglocentricity in the film is the result of its altogether British villain played by an altogether British actress. Those of us who worship Vera Drake might not wish it to be so, but Imelda Staunton is pretty much unknown in this country, and as such she seems sort of exotic. Can I say "exotic?" I mean to suggest that unlike Michael Gambon or Maggie Smith or Alan Rickman, she doesn't have the sort of familiarity that comes with years of making films on both sides of the pond, and that lends her a kind of de facto authenticity as a "real" Brit, and not just someone who was imported because of their bitchin' accent.

So, I can either get all of my gushing about Staunton out now, or I can do it later. Let's get it out of the way. Simply put, she is the best-cast actor in the series to date giving the best performance in any of the films. Her take on the matronly fascist Dolores Umbridge is full of tiny details and impeccable line readings, always delivered in a clipped faux-cheerful tone of voice that would drive anyone to despise her with their very souls. Staunton achieves something that all the directors and all the makeup artists to work on the Harry Potter films have not: she is pure, unbridled evil, although her evil comes in the banal form that tends to make things seem even more evil. The last time I was this much head-over-heels in love with a movie villain, it was another glorious, underrated actress in a fantasy adaptation: Tilda Swinton in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and I'd hate to have to choose between two such completely different performances, so I will content myself with saying that Staunton is so far the single best part of the summer.

It must be said, Staunton's villainy is helped quite a bit by the visual scheme of the movie, which privileges her garish pinkness against the greys and blues of Hogwarts. Think of it - a Harry Potter movie in which you can talk about the importance of the color scheme! For that let us congratulate Yates and let us congratulate even more the obnoxiously talented Slawomir Idziak, one of the great cinematographers of history and well-familiar with movies with precise color vocabularies, here to make Order of the Phoenix the most exorbitantly lovely of all five films.

There's nothing surprising about the cast, at this point; although of the three lead teens, Daniel Radcliffe is much improved and Emma Watson has slipped a bit, although she has a much reduced role in the story, compared to the other films and to the book itself. That's the one thing the series is delivering like clockwork, at this point: a whole basketful of extraordinary actors giving amusing one- or two-scene cameos. The other new player, besides Staunton, is Helena Bonham Carter in a role of such exceptional brevity that you wonder not only why she took it, you wonder why they paid her. And then there is Evanna Lynch, making her professional debut in the surprisingly hefty role of Luna Lovegood, the ditzy mystic fellow schoolmate who is introduced without fanfare; considering how little practice she has relative to the rest of the cast, it's almost offensive how many of them she out-acts.

Now, with all that being what it is, Order of the Phoenix would probably be the best film in the series; and here is why it is not. The script. I must start by saying that the fifth book is my least favorite, almost entirely because of its ruinous length, and so it pleases and amuses me to no end that the longest book of the series has been turned into the shortest movie. For approximately the first half, this works perfectly: the deadwood is sliced off without mercy and the action proceeds with a determined swiftness that betters Goblet of Fire, which was already a quantum leap over its predecessors in that regard. Sometimes this is not a painless process - in particular, the introduction of the individual members of the Order of the Phoenix would make no sense to anyone who hadn't read the books - but generally the overstuffed bureaucracy of the novel is shunted aside for what amounts to a political thriller.

Then the second half comes 'round, and the pacing gets a little too fast for its own good, and the film, like Prisoner of Azkaban, turns into a series of dramatic illustrations from the novel that only marginally form a narrative. Time and space jump around in a way that really doesn't make any sense at all, and the climactic sequence in particular suffers from the general feeling that it hasn't been properly explained what's going on.

Moreover, where Alfonso Cuarón was able to keep the emotional integrity of each individual scene more or less intact despite a sometimes arbitrary script, David Yates is only erratically able to control the mood even when the story is proceeding smoothly. There are moments of sublimity, such as the opening Dementor attack which is the first truly scary scene in any of the films, or the climactic duel, which is presented as a short, brutally serious moment, and not an effects-o-rama like the finales of the other movies, or the general arc in which Umbridge moves from being prim and conservative to outright authoritarian cruelty (the scene in which Harry is punished by writing lines - the highlight of the book - is captured with nauseating intensity). Yet those are contrasted by absolutely flat scenes in which everybody just seems confused, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the scene that ought to be the emotional centerpiece of the whole damn story, involving a most tragic death, that just comes across as perfunctory and completely unmoving. It's this in particular that makes me fear Yates's presence on the next film, which shall contain a yet more tragic and important death.

The good outweighs the bad by a wide margin, but just not quite enough to make this the best Harry Potter movie ever. And given that my least favorite book has been turned into my second-favorite movie, it's pretty clear that a lot of somebodies did something right. When they fuck up the next one, I'm going to be so pissed.