Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Foglerm, Alison Sudolm, Ezra Millerm, Zoë Kravitz. Directed by: David Yates
Mired in controversy for the casting of alleged wife-beater Johnny Depp, apparent downplaying of homosexual characters and the racial implications of an Asian woman as a slave snake, JK Rowling and David Yates’ latest excursion into the Wizarding World (complete with fun logo) is a veritable mixed bag from a franchise that is almost twenty years old.
Following on from Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, magical zoologist Newt Scamader finds his life in turmoil when the Ministry of Magic begin tailing him lead by his brother Theseus, due to former teacher Albus Dumbledore tasking him with tracking down the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, who has headed to Paris for obscurial outcast Credence Barebone so he may start his ethnic cleansing of the non-magic world.
Even from those first two paragraphs, it should be clear that The Crimes of Grindelwald is a confused film. David Yates is a stylish director, taking a brief detour into a dour boring (non-Phil Collins music) version of Tarzan has spent the last ten years solely making Rowling-verse magic movies. Having joined the franchise for part 5, AKA The Order of the Phoenix and staying through The Half Blood Prince, The Deathly Hallows parts 1 & 2 and the first prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, there is no denying that Yates is as much an author in this world as Rowling, his visual style lighting and shooting scenes are like they’re straight from old silent horror films, or even Hammer movies.
There’s also no denying that Rowling knows this world inside and out, lines of dialogue alluding to the wider world of the magical kingdom. Since Harry Potter was a very focused story of a boy in school, we only saw a small window into this universe, but through the prism of Fantastic Beasts we’ve already seen the American Ministry of Magic, their President and their own slang (not Muggles state-side they’re No-Mag). Similarly, a great line of dialogue from arch villain Grindelwald mentions other variations (le non-magique, and the can’t spells).
Here there is much less of the slapstick comedy of Fantastic Beasts, and – unfortunately – there is no shortage of beasts in this film, none of them impact as much as the first film’s adorable critters the Nifflers (back for more comic moments). The beasts all look too CGI here and lack the earthy touch of the Potter films’ creature effects. There’s no creature here as haunting as the Thestral, as scary as Aragog the giant Spider, as intense as the Basilisk or even as frankly daft as the cave troll.
That said, the sprawling ensemble cast does what you’d expect from Rowling’s universe. Redmayne, along with other returning actors Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol and Katherine Waterston are all great; Fogler continues to bring a warmth to the comic relief role, and the love story between Queenie and Jacob might not answer any questions but it’s one of the more believable arcs in the film.
Ezra Miller’s intense turn as magic outcast Credence Barebone, the central thrust of the story of which is centered on, is the best the film has to offer. Miller goes back to his We Need to Talk About Kevin roots with his hollow glares as a man searching for answers, while the world conspires against him.
The centre of the film is a titular – unlike Ralph Fiennes monstrous no-nose thug Voldermort, Johnny Depp’s Grindelwald is a much different beast. A charmer, a charismatic talker, Grindelwald doesn’t gain followers through fear, he gains them through saying all the right things. Depp, despite the crazy costuming of a Tim Burton film, the pale skin, two different coloured eyes and swagger, actually tones down the manic turns he’s pumped out the last few years. Here is a villain that is only almost terrifying, but calm, even likeable at times. Depp is a surprise in that he doesn’t ruin the film.
Similarly, Jude Law as a younger Dumbledore is a great turn. With a few scenes he manages to modulate the pain and the whimsy that underscored Michael Gambon’s time (more so than Richard Harris’). His trilby clad charmer is clearly going to become the man we know from Potter, his eccentricities hiding his burning guilt. Law turns in a performance of nuance and of pain that is unexpected from what could have been a sort of Obi-Wan clone.
And of course, the other standouts are Claudia Kim as shapeshifter Nagini and Zoe Kravitz as outcast beauty Leta Lestrange, both of whom get more depth in fewer scenes than Waterston or Sudol. They also deserve credit for turning what could be girlfriend roles into deep performances of pain and anguish, the likes of which aren’t seen often enough in Hollywood.
The film moves further away from a spectacle into a climax which is frankly rather boring. The opening, which sees a stagecoach air-escape by Grindelwald is a pre-title tour-de-force, and one of the best action sequences of the year, yet the film never again matches that level of invention. There are magic fights and explosions, with plenty of monsters and destruction, but nothing matches the tension of a flying coach getting attacked by a pale baddie.
All in all, the performances are as solid as each other, with each actor given lots to do, and most performers giving it some extra something, but nothing in the film makes this feel as strong as it should be. The film’s biggest crime is that it’s just a little safe, just a little boring, it feels like it’s holding back, saving stuff for future instalments and forgetting to imbue this film with a little bite.