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Film Review – Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018; Directed by David Yates)

J.K. Rowling loves plot. Give her all the plot. The more the better. Big, heaping, fattening piles of plot, like the platters of toppling victuals and treats that entrance her iconic orphan boy wizard Harry Potter in the dining hall of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry back in the first film of what is now the ten-film Wizarding World movie franchise, 17 years ago(!). Rowling never met a convoluted narrative thread or six that she didn’t adore and cherish like a precious child, even if they inevitably must end in lengthy, talky expository infodumps that explain the complications in great detail. When she read The Lord of the Rings, as her Potter saga demonstrates that she assuredly did, she must have stopped at the Council of Elrond and made an Unbreakable Vow to spend the rest of her writing life trying to equal or surpass it.

Rowling has other persistent foibles as a writer as well: an old-guard British obsession with heredity and bloodlines, a recourse to prophecies as foreshadowing, an expressed political worldview that tilts towards the progressive anti-authoritarian but leans to the Eurocentric and consistently excludes and erases minority identity groups (especially on the LGBT spectrum), a Dickensian fondness for whimsical names and side characters. All of these weaknesses are on display in the second film of the Fantastic Beasts prequel series, The Crimes of Grindelwald, and some of them certainly hamper this overstuffed, self-involved, generally unexciting wand-magic-fest of a movie. Her better qualities come through as well in the film as well, mind you: this movie, like all of her wizarding stories, is funny, humane, ingenious, and fundamentally infused with serious dedication to the principles of liberalism and staunch opposition to hard-right authoritarian demagoguery and its deadly consequences. But where her overwrought plotting habits were checked ably by screenwriter Steve Kloves in the Harry Potter movies and by her own relative hesitance with the screenplay format in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (maybe not as good as I found it at the time of its release, but miles better than this attempt), they are here unrestrained and rampant. I shared the theatre for Crimes of Grindelwald‘s second-weekend screening with a birthday party of a dozen children. While the Potter books and films grew and matured in the writing along with their protagonist (one of the strongest and most engaging things about them), their events (or certainly their basic stakes, moment-to-moment and in the larger sweep) remained intelligible to children down to their conclusion. I simply cannot fathom that these kids had any idea at all what was happening in The Crimes of Grindelwald.

I suppose I did know what was happening in this movie, but only with seven books and nine films of prior knowledge, some assiduous digging into memories of past events in the Potterverse, and concerted mental effort in the cinema itself. Spoilers may follow, but Rowling has spoiled this material enough with her busy excess that mine hardly matter in comparison. The Crimes of Grindelwald opens in 1927 with the titular white-haired seductively fascistic dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, who despite the controversy over his casting in light of domestic abuse allegations is rather good; well, his performance is good, he is just bad) escaping an airborne Thestral carriage transporting him from imprisonment in New York to prosecution for his crimes in Europe. It’s an enervating if sometimes visually confusing pulse-pounder of an opening in the tradition of James Bond films and referencing John Ford’s Stagecoach (I must give Rowling some praise for her thunderous action scenes, for which she has long been underrated). The movie is never as exciting again, and there’s plenty of it left to go.

Grindelwald retreats to Paris to gather followers and pursue Creedence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a powerful Obscurial whose release of his repressed magical powers flattened a good chunk of New York during the climax of the first Fantastic Beasts. Grindelwald is desirous of Creedence’s allegiance for his considerable powers as well as for more secretive reasons which relate to the boy’s family lineage. Creedence is also seeking his rumoured-to-be-august magical family history (he was revealed to have been adopted by an austere bible-thumping anti-magic crusader in the last film, if you care to recall). This lost young man has fallen into a touring magical freak-show carnival along with his sole kindred-spirit friend, a Maledictus named Nagini (Claudia Kim) who is blood-cursed to one day become a snake, and sometime after that becomes the familiar companion and Horcrux of Harry Potter’s nemesis Lord Voldemort, only to be decapitated with a sword by Neville Longbottom at the end of The Deathly Hallows Part 2, a fist-pump hero moment that feels a little different now that we’ve met this wounded and doubting young woman in her pre-serpentine form, to say the least.

*deep breath*

Arrayed against Grindelwald’s plans for a new order of wizard supremacy over subjugated non-magical people are the government Aurors of Britain (they’re kind of the wizard FBI, magical g-men), which include Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner), elder brother of Fantastic Beasts protagonist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). Newt meets up with his brother amidst the monumental black stone of the British Ministry of Magic, a committee of which considers lifting the travel ban against the magical-creature-loving Newt imposed following the chaos his treasured beings unleashed in New York. They rule against lifting the ban when Newt refuses their quid-pro-quo offer of killing Creedence for them, and they send a notorious Auror assassin named Grimmson (Ingvar Eggert Siggurðsson) in his place. Newt also encounters Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), his former Hogwarts classmate and past (maybe also present) flame, who is engaged to marry Theseus, which complicates the already-divergent brothers’ relationship just a touch.

*deep breath*

Newt returns to his London rowhouse, beneath which is a cavernous magically-extended habitat for the various magical creatures he safeguards and cares for, complete with M.C. Escher stairways and a plain English caretaking assistant (Victoria Yeates). Rowling and director David Yates pause for an interlude of fleeting wonder in this larger-scale version of Newt’s weathered magical-being-holding suitcase, as Newt rides a marine creature made out of kelp, but soon enough trample back into narrative momentum. Newt has an unannounced visit from his friends from New York, Muggle baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, one of the comic highlights of the first film in this new series but a mere one-note passenger here) and his lover Queenie (Alison Sudol and her breathy flapper intonations), a mind-reading Legilimens and the sister of American Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who had a mutually-felt affection for Newt in the last movie. Tina is not with them, however, as she is on the trail of Creedence in Paris and has gone off Newt besides, following his ill-advised criticisms of Aurors in a letter to her and her own impression from a wizards’ gossip magazine article that he and not his brother is engaged to Leta Lestrange. Also, although Jacob loves Queenie, he doesn’t think their relationship across the magic line can survive the laws against it in America, and she quarrels with him for his cowardice and bolts. Got all that? No? Good.

*deep breath*

All of these characters and more end up in Paris, wrapped up in the supremely tangled pursuit of Creedence, of Grindelwald, and of each other. There’s also French-Senegalese wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) who has vowed to kill Creedence (or at least whom he believes Creedence to be), and even the immortal alchemist and Philosopher’s Stone footnote Nicolas Flamel shows up (he has next to nothing to do, at least in this movie, but he is played by Brontis Jodorowsky, thus connecting the Wizarding World directly to the actor’s father, the enigmatic surrealistic filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, by a single additional step).

Both Kama and Leta Lestrange have complicated (and interrelated) family-history backstories which Rowling chooses to unpack laboriously just prior to the final-act climax at Paris’ legendary Père Lachaise Cemetery (although much of the exterior location shooting was at London’s Highgate Cemetery and its iconic Egyptian Avenue), which is problematic in pacing terms as well as due to the troublingly old-fashioned melodramatic details of those backstories. It’s debatable whether these talky reveals work on the page, but they do not work on the big screen and no one in a position to do so has summoned the gumption to inform Rowling of it. Is there an audience out there for bewildering digressions on the Lestrange family history? I’m sure there is, but Rowling can’t argue convincingly for why the rest of us should care.

Complete borderline-incoherent mess that The Crimes of Grindelwald is, it doesn’t feel right to brush it aside without noting some finer points. The film is a technical marvel as all of the Wizarding World films have been (at least post-Prisoner of Azkaban), with wonderful production, costume, sound, and computer effects design on display from moment to moment. There’s an effects-heavy sequence in the storage-shelf-shuffling archive of the French Ministry of Magic (a magnificent set, like if Art Nouveau grandee Alphonse Mucha had designed an airport terminal) featuring a fearsome, gloriously-realized Chinese lion-demon creature (that is, nonetheless, a kitty at heart) that Newt rescued from the Circus Arcanus cat-fighting with the archive’s black feline guardians.

Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander remains a very particular reluctant hero, and as well as he’s played by Redmayne is still most laudable as a lead character whose greatest strength is his capacity for empathy and understanding. Though you have to feel like there’s a great performance from Ezra Miller as Creedence lurking two or three movies hence, the cast of the Fantastic Beasts films cannot help but pale in comparison to the bloom of a golden generation of English thesps that dotted the Potter series. There are some engaging and even transcendent performers in this cast, but no one that can come within miles of measuring up to a rotating stable of actors like Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Robbie Coltrane, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, Imelda Staunton, Kenneth Branagh, Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Griffiths, and more.

Much of the discussion inside and outside of the fan community as regards The Crimes of Grindelwald, however, will focus on Rowling’s entwined treatment of one of the Wizarding World’s most tantalizing mysteries and the related political resonance it strikes. Gellert Grindelwald’s rhetoric and methods of persuasion, demonstrated in a climactic theatrical event clearly meant to evoke Adolf Hitler’s Nazi rallies, strongly echoes fascist authoritarians of past and present, real and imagined. Grindelwald’s argument, that inherently superior wizards and witches cannot live separately but equally with inferior but useful Muggles and retain their freedom and self-determination (magical lebensraum, essentially), is also basically Magneto’s ideological bedrock for the Brotherhood of Mutants in X-Men, and like in those comics and movies, it holds an appeal to different characters for diverse reasons (including at least one that you might not expect, though this character’s conversion to the cause seems to be missing a key step or two). And Grindelwald actually sets himself and his new order up as a pre-emptive movement against the catastrophic destruction and oppression wrought by fascism, seeking to persuade the gathered attendees to join him with predictive glimpses of World War II’s atrocities and provoking Theseus’ rally-busting Aurors to violence as a demonstration of the intolerant restrictions of the wizarding establishment.

But Crimes of Grindelwald‘s politics are tied up in the dark wizard’s shadowy past connection to the original Potter series’ figure of wisdom and authority, Professor Albus Dumbledore. Played here as a younger man (and Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, a mid-film visit to which feels like coming up for air) by a dashing, waistcoated Jude Law, Dumbledore prods Newt towards confrontation with Grindelwald as his proxy since he himself cannot fight the dark wizard. As revealed in Deathly Hallows, this is because Dumbledore and Grindelwald had some sort of relationship years before as younger men (the implications of this on Dumbledore’s status as a heroic character and how it ripples down to this movie are unpacked well by John DiLillo at Film School Rejects). Crimes of Grindelwald fleshes this out just a little: the two young men made some sort of binding vow (or Vow, though maybe not Unbreakable) not to harm each other.

The exact nature of Dumbledore/Grindelwald has remained obscure, a continuing mystery by design, but even before Rowling’s problematic supratextual public declaration that Dumbledore was gay, the alluded-to liaison was marked by speculation of homosexual desire. It certainly always presented that way to my thinking, from the time of the final book’s publication; J.K. Rowling is a lot of things as a writer, but subtle is not one of them. Crimes of Grindelwald, despite pre-release speculation, doesn’t go there, continuing Rowling’s reticence towards firmly canonizing Dumbledore’s sexuality. But the truth is, it doesn’t go anywhere, really, at least nowhere new as concerns these characters and their link to each other.There is a pretty clear nod in that direction, with Dumbledore gazing into the Mirror of Erised (the first in a series of Rowling’s magical expository devices) and seeing his youthful self with the a manboy Grindelwald, but the backstory remains veiled. Maybe a future movie will detail matters further (there’s three more to go in this series, we are promised), but this one maintains a Wizarding World without acknowledged same-sex relationships.

This failure may be more on Rowling’s hyper-plotting maniam and may not be one of nerve or courage of convictions or sufficient liberality on her part, and even aligns with recent wink-and-nudge Hollywood blockbuster hints of meaningful LGBT representation (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast rehash comes particularly to mind). From the very start of her Wizarding World, when she swapped a Philosopher’s Stone for a Sorceror’s Stone (at her publisher’s suggestion, yes, but still), she’s kept a weather eye on the lucrative American market and its stereotypical concerns, and maybe her reticence to push minority representation too far is coloured by those concerns. Anxiety about causing offence to American audiences might also serve explain one of the strangest omissions in her suite of worldbuilding choices: the dearth of religion in the Wizarding World.

It’s a tangential point perhaps deserving its own essay (and likely there are some out there on the subject already), but besides the severe, abusive, intolerant fundamentalist Christianity of Creedence’s adoptive mother in the first Fantastic Beasts (which is located firmly in the NoMaj world), there is no religion in wizarding societies. Perhaps Rowling sought out well-scrubbed secularity, or decided that any religion connected to witchcraft and wizardry might veer close to the sort of out-and-out Satanism featured in something like Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. But the existence of a global community of magical practitioners whose special powers are confered at birth and cannot be said to be strictly due to genetic heredity (search up “Squib” and “Muggle-born” in a Potterverse wiki for support for this) that does not include at least factions that are convinced of the unseen hand of a higher power in such gifts seems, well, a little unbelievable.

I suppose it must be time to return to the main road of this rambling, bramble-encrusted critical consideration and sum up. Although I must admit that Iam a believer in films receiving written criticism worthy of their particular nature, and with this in mind, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald has earned such a litany of barely-focused overwrought thoughts. This is not a completely awful movie, by any means; too much money and fine craftsmanship is in play behind and in front of the camera for that. The Wizard World could perhaps use a fresh director to shake it up; Yates is hyper-competent and quite comfortable with the material, but has now helmed half of the ten films in this franchise (perhaps Brontis Jodorowsky can put in a word for his old man? That, I would pay to see). But whoever directs it, this is a movie defined above all by the myriad, baked-in faults of its creator.

J.K. Rowling is not about to change who she is as a writer at this point, and so those of us who still set some stock in the Wizarding World’s narrative continuation, untangleable plots and all, must reconcile ourselves to not expecting her to evolve to any real extent. Rowling’s work has nagging problems that have grown from specks to logs in this new prequel series and in The Crimes of Grindelwald in particular. Perhaps we should have collectively thought about that before we anointed her the wealthiest writer in the world and the most important author in a generation. Cringe from that characterization if you will, but then try to pinpoint an alternative to the title and find acceptance in the failure. That this most consequential of contemporary popular writers penned a film as shambolic and troubled as The Crimes of Grindelwald is not a positive statement for either that writer or our times.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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