Unfortunately, before you can start talking about this film, there is so much that has to be discussed…
Firstly: Johnny Depp. I wrestled with even going to see this film, knowing that Depp would be in it. I’m pretty disgusted at the attitude of JK Rowling, The Davids – Heyman and Yates and Warner Brothers over Depp and I HATE that he casts a pall over what is probably my favourite film franchise. It is especially frustrating that in a world with polyjuice potion and metamorphmagus and setting the precedent of both Colin Farrell and Jamie Campbell Bower playing versions of the character, Depp could have been easily replaced and still could be. I would love to see the filmmakers finally do the right thing here. It is only because I am SO invested in this world that I went ahead and watched this film anyway. I struggled with this decision, I’m not proud of it and I fully understand people boycotting this film because of Depp. When watching and reviewing, I have tried to focus on the film around him and ignore him as much as possible.
Secondly: Rowling’s revisionism and queer-baiting. I am a HUGE Harry Potter fangirl but I and many of my fellow Potterheads are sick of Rowling coming out and saying “oh, by the way, Dumbledore was gay” or “Hermione could have been black” and trying to get points for diversity which were not apparent in the books or first films. The Cursed Child featured two teenage boys who were clearly in love with one another, but Rowling has rightly come under fire for queer-baiting because she won’t go the whole hog and make it explicit. Now that the Fantastic Beasts films have chosen to focus on young Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald, Rowling should be forced to follow through with the statements she has been teasing. The extent to which The Crimes of Grindelwald does this, I will explore later in this review.
So, onto the film. I’m one of the few people who loved the first Fantastic Beasts film. Yes, it was packed with far too much plot, but the setting of 1920s New York was to die for, it had a really strong cast and stunning costume and production design (I still think about Colin Farrell’s haircut and coat all the time). One of the strongest aspects of the first film was Ezra Miller (an excellent actor) as Credence (a really compelling role and one which could be seen as a metaphor for being LGBQT while growing up in a religious home and also for trying to live with and hide a mental illness). Credence’s scenes with Colin Farrell were electric, as Graves/Grindy took advantage of this broken, vulnerable young man who was desperate for love and a sense of belonging and set about grooming and manipulating him. I had been skeptical about Farrell’s casting beforehand, but he blew me away (yet another reason to be so angry about Depp). Samantha Morton was also reliably amazing. The world-building of Fantastic Beasts was so good, with Newt’s suitcase being the highlight. I’m not particularly a fan of Eddie Redmayne (especially when he seems to have filled his performance of Newt with tics left over from playing Stephen Hawking) or Katherine Waterston, but the supporting characters of Jacob and Queenie were amiable enough to provide enough hope for the sequels. I do like that Newt’s character is so sympathetic and caring to those who most of the world view as monsters, freaks or aliens and see them to be feared and controlled. When I heard that Miller would be returning for The Crimes of Grindelwald and that Jude Law would be young Dumbledore, I allowed myself to get excited. Add in Zoe Kravitz and Callum Turner and the cast just got extremely hot. I was just hoping that Depp would not overshadow all of the positive aspects.
The Crimes of Grindelwald moves from New York to Paris and continues the trend of being visually breath-taking. Even in ‘normal’ apartments, the attention to detail in the production design is astounding – there is just so much to take in from every corner of the frame. Even something as simple as Credence and Nagini entering an apartment via a corridor is shot and framed and designed so beautifully – the corridor lined with windows and the apartment hung with lace. The bigger set-pieces, such as the circus scene brought tears to my eyes – the thought of a magic circus, filled with fantastic beasts in the Potter universe is just so tantalising (a bit like the speakeasy nightclub scene in the first FB). The costumes again are so appealing, with Kravitz’s Leta Lestrange purple outfit and Queenie’s pink shoes being particular highlights. The design of the ministries – in New York, London and Paris each have their own flavour – I never tire of seeing the green ‘London Underground’ style tiles in the British ministry. The use of a green copper statue which comes to life and shows the way into the magical world of Paris is ingenious. Being basked in the Potter universe and submerged in the sumptuous visuals is so enjoyable (for me, anyway), it makes up for a lot.
I have heard a lot of grumbling about the characters in the two Fantastic Beasts films and that no one cares about them. Yes, Redmayne is annoying, but Newt is a worthy central character to hang this franchise on. His morality is very much in-keeping with the original series, he is loyal and values his friends (even if others don’t – like Neville, Luna and in the case of FB; Jacob) just like Harry did. He is a protector of the down-trodden, the outcasts and there is a lot to be said for that. The new additions in this film (ignoring Depp for a moment) were successful. Law absolutely nails Dumbledore (with just the subtlest hint of an Irish lilt, as a nod to Harris) and this film does not shy away from the fact that he is morally grey, manipulative and is definitely that bitch. Leta Lestrange gets an interesting backstory and character arc and is played by the beautiful Kravitz to perfection – her English accent is a treat for the ears. Callum Turner is perfectly cast as Theseus Scamander (his physical resemblance to Redmayne is uncanny), however, the decision to make the younger Turner Newt’s older brother is perhaps unnecessary – the rivalry between the brothers may have actually worked better if Theseus was younger. I look forward to seeing where his character goes in future films. Nagini (Claudia Kim) has been a controversial character (yet another revision by Rowling) but I liked her relationship with Credence and also that her character was perhaps on an unexpected side – again, I look forward to seeing where her arc goes in the future. Nicholas Flamel was a welcome and humorous addition and this provided my favourite cameo – Jessica Williams in one of Flamel’s books. Jacob and Queenie’s characters and relationship certainly go in an unexpected direction in this film, not everyone is going to be a fan of this, but I thought it was interesting and means both characters will have plenty to do in the subsequent films. They are both fully invested and involved in this war and will not just be the light-hearted or comedic sideshow act they were in the first film.
Now we come to the plot and writing, which as with the first film, are going to be the most flawed aspects. I sincerely wish that, as she did with The Cursed Child, Rowling would give the writing reigns over to someone else on this franchise. I have heard the complaint that this film has “no plot”, but the problem is actually the opposite – it has far too much going on, as did the first film. By far the most glaringly negative aspect of The Crimes of Grindelwald for me was that in the second half of the film, the editing goes absolutely haywire as it tries to keep up with the plot. In a world in which characters can already apparate to new places in a split second, the editing makes characters just suddenly appear in new locations with no coherence. However, although plot-holes abound (once you start examining events too closely), there is a lot to enjoy here. The events return to Hogwarts and if you don’t get emotional hearing that music during the establishing shots, you must have a heart of stone. Seeing Dumbledore in Lupin’s role of Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, schooling students on patronuses using boggarts is wonderful. The actors who play young Newt and Leta are exceptional – Joshua Shea (young Newt) has obviously studied Redmayne’s mannerisms in detail because his portrayal is completely convincing. There are several spectacular set-pieces; the afore-mentioned circus scene and a scene at the French ministry involving moving towers of records and black cat protectors were particular highlights. Newt’s basement takes over from his suitcase as a land of magic and wonders – the new beasts in this film are glorious – including a kelpie, a Chinese dragon and an expanded roster of Nifflers. This film did lean into Newt being in love with Tina a lot more than I was expecting, which was not really needed. I found the Newt, Theseus and Leta love-triangle more compelling, although it did echo the Snape, Lily and James one a bit uncomfortably.
As for Dumbledore and Grindelwald – this film did address their (ahem) ‘relationship’ more than I thought it would. There are many strong hints that they were in love – Dumbledore sees his young self with Grindelwald in The Mirror Of Erised, they share a blood bond, they were “closer than brothers” – however, all of this will prove meaningless and empty if it isn’t directly and explicitly addressed in future films. I and many others are getting increasingly angry and frustrated at all of these teases (as I said, they were there in The Cursed Child as well), in this day and age you should be able to show a homosexual relationship in any kind of film – even YA, fantasy, family and/or blockbuster films. These films do not shy away from showing heterosexual crushes amongst teens and using heterosexual love as major motivating factors for characters’ decisions. It is absolutely in keeping with the Potterverse that Dumbledore and Grindelwald loving one another would provide complications in their rivalry and it is good and interesting, but these half-hearted hints are not enough and not acceptable. Do better JK and Warner Brothers.
So, an extremely mixed bag, but for me, the good outweighed the bad. Two hours spent in the Potter universe is always going to be preferable to just about anything else I could be doing. The visuals are overwhelmingly stunning, so many of my personal boxes are ticked by setting Potter in the 1920s, it is always going to be a good time for me. I completely understand some people’s frustrations with these Fantastic Beasts films and I entirely appreciate why many people are done with Rowling. I understand people being against these films because of Depp or because of how sexuality is potentially being mishandled, however, for me, the plot and the characters, for the large part, are successful. I am invested enough in these characters (new and old) to want to see where it’s going. I desperately hope that certain decisions are made (recasting Depp, allowing Dumbledore and Grindelwald to be fully gay) to make me feel not so uncomfortable about defending these films. Rowling has certainly made many decisions that are indefensible and she deserves to be called out on them unreservedly. But I cannot help but be succumbed by the positive aspects eg. making Newt and Credence complex metaphors for much of what is going on in the world right now, which shows what Rowling can get right. And Law’s Dumbledore was SO good, I want to see him again. I just hope that this franchise goes in a positive direction.