Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, William Nadylam, Kevin Guthrie, Jude Law, Johnny Depp
Director: David Yates
Writer: J.K. Rowling
I don’t mind admitting that I was apprehensive about this film going in despite Harry Potter being such an integral part of my childhood and my having mostly enjoyed the first Fantastic Beasts. While the previous film could be quite clumsy in terms of plotting and world building, I thought Newt Scamander made for an appealing protagonist, there were a couple of fun action scenes and some neat visuals, and the movie also had one or two interesting ideas that I thought could lead to some great pay-offs in the sequel. In the couple of years leading up to this new title however, there were a couple of red flags that gave me pause. One was the studio’s decision to keep Johnny Depp in the film following the allegations of domestic abuse made by ex-wife Amber Heard. Another was the announcement that this next film would not address Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s romantic relationship in any direct way despite it being directly relevant to the story. While one could probably argue that such objections are more moral than they are qualitative and shouldn’t have any bearing on my thoughts on the film itself, I still felt that these announcements betrayed a certain wrongheadedness behind the decision making and also a conservative (some might say medieval) mindset in their approach. I braced myself for disappointment but still hoped that I might be surprised.
I was surprised all right. Not by the movie’s regressive politics and pathological aversion to risk and chance, nor by J.K. Rowling’s lethal case of the George Lucas syndrome. No, what really surprised me about The Crimes of Grindelwald was its staggering incompetence on almost every level. Penned once again by Rowling herself, somebody whom I know knows how storytelling works at its most basic level, and directed by David Yates, his sixth film in this franchise (at least two of which are very good), it astounds me how demonstrably, exceedingly, bafflingly, amateurishly, embarrassingly bad this movie that they’ve made together is. The plot is grossly overstuffed and all but incomprehensible, the characterisation is profoundly nonsensical except when it’s utterly non-existent, and even the basic filming and editing style is so enormously inept it would make a first-year film student ashamed. The opening scene for instance, in which Grindelwald (Depp) escapes from his captivity, is a rainy scene shot in such drab darkness with such sporadic abandon it’s impossible to be sure what’s actually happening at any given second. Crucial cinematic storytelling principles such as set-up and payoff, clarity in spatial relationships and geography and an understanding of the stakes and dangers present; these are all key components in crafting an action scene and Grindelwald’s escape fails on all counts. The colours are all so dark and grey that it’s never clear what’s happening within the space of the shot and they’re all cut together so haphazardly that all the moment manages to generate for the viewer is confusion rather than suspense and excitement.
This chaotic mismatch of indistinct moments is demonstrative of the larger story that the film is trying to tell. Things only go downhill as it soon becomes clear that the blurry opening scene was the first of many steps in the movie’s effort to completely undo the ending of its previous instalment. Thus Grindelwald is free once again after spending an unseen year in between the two titles incarcerated. Next, The Crimes of Grindelwald negates one of the more poignant scenes in the first film by revealing that Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) did not die but that he instead vanished and has now resurfaced in Paris. No explanation is given as far as I can remember, all we’re told is that his power as an Obscurus has grown and he’s gone searching for his true parentage. The Ministry of Magic wants to bring him in and so they turn to the grounded magical zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) for his help. Newt refuses because he has no interest in taking sides in a wizarding war, especially if it involves working with his Auror brother Theseus (Callum Turner). Afterwards he is approached by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who persuades Newt that he needs to find Credence and keep him safe before either the Ministry or Grindelwald can get to him. Dumbledore can’t move against Grindelwald himself for vague, heteronormative reasons.
Things get complicated fast as we learn that Newt, the Ministry and Grindelwald are not the only ones searching for Credence. American Auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), who is pissed of with Newt because of a romantic misunderstanding, is also hot on his trail as is a French-Senegalese wizard called Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), who is on a quest to right a past wrong. Along for the ride is Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) who has pursued an illegal relationship with Muggle (or No-Maj if you prefer) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and wants to move someplace where they’ll be free to marry and live together. Jacob, incidentally, remembers all the events of the previous film, thereby undoing another affective moment. There’s also Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), Newt’s old flame and his brother’s fiancé, who is in search for some answers about her own past, and Nagini (Claudia Kim), Credence’s girlfriend cursed with an affliction through which she can transform into a snake. These characters all convolutedly end up in Paris where they spend about two-thirds of the movie trying to find each other and having rushed meetings before hurriedly departing in order to find someone somewhere else. All this is in anticipation of a meeting held by Grindelwald where they all come together to watch him deliver a fiery speech. This is one of those movies where too much is happening all at once, yet in the end little has actually happened.
Like with George Lucas and the Star Wars prequels, Rowling has fallen into the trap of creating a series of movies that exist not to tell a specific story, but to answer questions that in the grand scale of things don’t really matter. Even if you’re a Potterhead who loves the Wizarding World and wants nothing more than to keep on living in it, knowing that person X is related to person Y or that Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so is going to reappear in Harry Potter and the Something of the Something doesn’t mean anything if it adds nothing to the story. If you have a series of movies that are more interested in drawing connections with a story that we already know and love than it is in telling one of its own, you get a series where the stakes are completely absent since we know that Grindelwald will be defeated round about Movie 4 or 5 and that his legacy will not have had any lasting effect by the time we reach Harry, Ron and Hermione. It also means that we don’t get any meaningful character development since the priority is simply to introduce them as these moving pieces in a world and story we’re already supposed to care about. What makes The Crimes of Grindelwald so dull to watch is that you have about a dozen or so characters scrambling around like headless chickens without the one thing that they all desperately need: motivation.
If we look at Grindelwald himself, the character whose actions are the entire driving force of the film, what makes him such a weak villain isn’t just Depp’s sleepwalking performance; it’s that the movie never makes it clear to us who he is or what he want (even in the climatic speech in which he states who he is and what he wants). We know that he wants to create a world free of the stain of humanity (i.e. Muggles), yet offers no specific grievances, he merely alludes to the Second Great War that is to come with its concentration camps and atomic bombs. If Grindelwald has a specific goal or a plan through which to achieve it, it remains a mystery by the end of the film. Contrast that with Voldemort who had a clear goal: kill Harry Potter. We learn the reason much later in the story and by then it barely even matters anymore because the conflict has become so complex and personal. All that matters is that Harry is a character we like and know well; therefore we root for Voldemort to fail. Grindelwald’s ambitions pose no threat that matters to us on an emotional level because there is nothing personal about his conflict with any of the main characters save Dumbledore (which the movie is only willing to explore on the most insubstantially Platonic level). Even as a character in his own right, Grindelwald fails to impress as this magical dictatorial predecessor to the likes of Hitler, Mussolini and… another political figure with bleach white hair and fascist tendencies largely because of Depp, a formerly daring and charismatic actor who just can’t be bothered anymore.
Newt Scamander is still likeable enough as the Hufflepuff hero whose greatest power is not strength, intelligence or charisma but rather empathy and fulfils not the role of a warrior, officer or leader but that of a healer. He is however trapped in a series in which he is progressively losing reason and direction. His goal is to try and find Credence and keep him safe, yet there is nothing personal between himself and Credence or Grindelwald compelling him on this endeavour. Even if we were to say that Newt’s motivation is simply ‘he is a good person who wants to do the right thing’, there has to be something at stake for him personally in order for us to become invested in his success. If the case is that Newt feels for Credence, empathises with him, and wants to help him for his own sake, then that’s something the film has to show us and not take for granted. Again, if we were to compare him to Rowling’s previous hero, it’s made perfectly clear to us what Harry Potter’s goal is: to defeat the man who killed his parents. It’s simple, it’s understandable, and it’s personal. The only personal conflict Newt faces in this film is his romantic misadventure with Tina, who thinks he’s engaged to Leta because a gossip magazine printed the name of the wrong Scamander brother. While the first film did hint at some kind of spark between the couple, the idea that they were ever close enough to become an item comes out of nowhere and this silly, easily resolved misunderstanding lifted straight out of an 80s sitcom feels tiringly trite and distracting.
That’s not the worst of the movie’s many subplots though; that honour belongs to the red herring goose chase that takes up so much focus throughout the film, only to then amount to nothing. A tale of dark deeds, tragic regrets and mistaken identities, a large portion of the movie is dedicated towards solving a mystery at the heart of all this and it turns out two-thirds of the characters involved needn’t have bothered because not only did they get it wrong, the answers that they do learn don’t even matter to the film’s ending. Yet that doesn’t stop it from taking up several scenes complete with flashbacks and a final confrontation in which two or three characters stand up in succession to say “No, here’s what really happened”. The resolution is not only laughably stupid, it doesn’t even resolve anything in and of itself because it concerns characters we either don’t know or have never met whose fates we don’t care about because it ends up not having anything to do with what’s actually happening. If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is and I cannot imagine why Rowling felt that this whole diversion was necessary to her story except as a means to get a certain number of characters into a room together near the end.
I suppose there were a couple of things I liked. Jude Law turned out to be a pretty good Dumbledore with his ability to add nuance and depth to even the thinnest of material (just look at The Young Pope if you need further proof) and he played that role with the dignity, wit and dash of mischief befitting a younger version of this familiar character (although a part of me is always going to wonder what Jared Harris might have done with the role). I don’t like the way the film handled Dumbledore, especially in light of the revelation made near the end about his inaction, but I can’t fault Law’s performance. There were also a couple of magical creatures that I liked such as the Kelpie, which is like a sea horse in a very literal sense, and the Zouwu, which looks like a cross between Falcor from Neverending Story and a Chinese dragon puppet. There’s also the Niffler for those who enjoy its treasure-stealing shenanigans. But weighing these pros against the many, many cons feels like praising The Revenge of the Sith for the visuals and Ewan McGregor’s performance; they don’t even begin to make up for the film’s flaws. I haven’t even touched on the deeply disturbing romance of Queenie and Jacob, the shameful character arcs inflicted on Leta and Nagini and other details that spoiler etiquette prevents me from discussing. Suffice it to say that The Crimes of Grindelwald is a shambolic mess of a film that exists only to capitalise on the Potter brand and has none of the magic that made it special in the first place.