Before sitting down to write this, I was talking to a friend about how easy to forget the first Fantastic Beasts film was.
Don’t get me wrong. It was a sweet film driven by the ever endearing and charmingly awkward Newt Scamander. However, it was not a film that would etch its way into your memory. There were no stand-out moments, except for the Nibbler and the climax where the Obscurial aka Credence Barebones blows off some serious steam.
There were several spaces to fill during the experience of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It wasn’t about leaving you wanting for more, it was about not having enough and anything brilliant enough to want anything else. The Crimes of Grindelwald is an aggressive attempt to change that record. Did it work? Only just. After all, spectacle can only get you that far. The act needs meat of its own to stand a chance.
The Man of the hour: Gellert Grindelwald
Crimes of Grindelwald begins with an opening sequence I will place among my favourites from the Harry Potter universe. You are introduced to the brutality and sheer maleficence of Gellert Grindelwald right from the word go. Although we now know it to be Polyjuice Potion-aided theatrics, Depp has an eerie quality to himself as Grindelwald, a quality director David Yates and Rowling could have used a little more than they did.
Johnny Depp’s Grindelwald is brilliant which, as someone following the #MeToo movement and the allegations against him, was admittedly hard to write without pausing for a second. But you have to give it to the man. After all the controversy and public shunning, Depp is easily one of the best parts of the film and almost salvages it. He works beautifully with what he is given, the problem here being, he’s given far too less.
I took home two scenes with me in particular — the one where he cleverly wins over an unsuspecting and vulnerable Queenie in his usurped lair, speaking almost truthfully about the right to love, and the climax set in the Lestrange family mausoleum.
In the latter, it is almost poetic when the common folk have left, leaving him with the Aurors. As he offers them a place in his ranks, he sets the ground on fire; beautiful copper sulphate embers engulf the land around him while Grindelwald stands in the middle, orchestrating the blaze like a conductor — the elder wand ominously carrying out his sinister plan. THIS is a villain, a villain who has the potential to put Voldemort to shame. Simply because he prefers to convince rather than conquer.
Again, I don’t mean to undermine one of the most loved (for how much we hated him) villains of 21st century literature. There is a sureness and resolve to Grindelwald though that the absolutely-desperate-for-power Voldemort did not have. Both have an animal linked to them, Nagini for Voldemort and a chupacabra called Antonio for Grindelwald. The former keeps her desperately close for reasons we now know too well. Grindelwald, on the other hand, flings Antonio out of the door of the thestral-drawn carriage, “So needy” he says, looking it at disapprovingly as it nestles against his hand.
He doesn’t need validation, he strives only for power, a power that he validates with a moral argument- unity of the wizarding world and their dominance over muggles.
It is audacious that Grindelwald plays Dumbledore as an equal, compared to Voldemort who claims superiority but lives in absolute fear. This could also have to do with the former being Dumbledore’s peer, friend and lover while Voldy was a student who saw his teacher come in the way of his ambitions.
With strong writing and more screen time, I wonder how different Grindelwald might have been, and consequentially this film.
Of loyalty, betrayal and much ado about nothing
Watching Crimes of Grindelwald felt like revisiting archaeological sites I enjoyed visiting as a kid. Now you have lines of shops and mobile vendors selling trinkets, key chains, postcards and other memorabilia to celebrate the space. The space itself though often looks dilapidated, doodled on and lackluster compared to the experience being sold at its doorstep.
The movie felt exactly the same. Lovely packaging, great effects, standout moments but an absolute disregard for content. Timelines seem extremely messed up what with McGonagall appearing in this film, the events of which happen 8 years before her birth.
It feels a lot like the writers tried to put so much into this film, completely overturning facts about the universe’s future as we know them to be.
The post-climax reveal infuriated me as much as it got me to the edge of my seat.The internet is rife with fan theories and postulations about Aurelius Dumbledore. While it makes for a decent cliffhanger, was it necessary? It changes everything we know about Dumbledore and leaves us wondering if we’ve been lied to for the last two decades. Is that necessary perhaps? The last few Potter books dedicated themselves to giving Dumbledore a few grey shades, darker than what we’d have expected and I was so grateful. It is nice to see a character whose ‘holier than thou’ garb fades away to reveal a vulnerability that’s almost endearing. Are we heading for a taste of the same again with this story arc? Or is Grindelwald just a liar who knows the only way he can get to Dumbledore is through treachery and deception?
Before the movie came out, social media exploded when the makers said the film will not explore Dumbledore’s homosexual relationship with Grindelwald. Having watched the film, I am glad they made that choice.
We speak of pandering to audiences while discussing this film and keeping that in mind, including an LGBTQ angle when it’s not required does more disservice to the community than otherwise. The film gave us glimpses of their intimacy and the closeness of their ambitions in just the right amount, making me feel a little stupid for getting ticked off about the script choice in the first place.
Jude Law makes for an extremely charismatic Dumbledore. I can imagine this Dumbledore growing up to become the Richard Harris version of the character we have grown to love. I am not a fan of Gambon’s hurried and obviously sketchy-looking Dumbledore. It broke my heart. It is a debated opinion but I’ll just stay on my side of the fence for now.
There is a rawness to how distraught young Dumbledore looks when he sees Grindelwald in the Mirror of Erised which will stick on with you. He is helpless when he says he cannot fight Grindelwald and very unabashed about it too, compared to Depp’s Grindelwald who never lets this chink in his armour slip when trying to suggest someone else faithful to him will do the deed.
The other controversy involved Claudia Kim who plays Nagini, whose existence seems thoroughly inconsequential to the occurrences of this film. I know we have three more films coming up and we must be patient, but hey. Considering all the drama around her casting, this character is almost entirely forgettable as far as the Crimes of Grindelwald experience goes.
The Lestrange story line was frustrating. The interracial history, the marital rape, the half-sibling-revenge story seemed all too half-hearted. Yusuf’s motives and mission did not convince me at all and only made the film 20 minutes longer than I think it should have been. I want to hate on Credence too. I have no energy left to speak about how I ground my teeth each time he came on screen though. Let’s just let go and wait for the next installment of the series to go ballistic or be proved wrong. It’s going to be the latter, one hopes and will continue to.
While I have come to terms with these twists, from Rowling, it does border on betrayal. Are you being complacent that we will lap everything up from the wizarding world? Even if we will, why is that license to take us for a ride we can call BS on?
Leaving the beasts behind
Admittedly this film felt a lot less about creatures themselves and rightly so. We can’t have five feature films that feel like five editions of a textbook. The beasts introduced in this film are interesting but they do not stay with you.
Some make for interesting character explainers, like Antonio mentioned above. Some others are Potterverse regulars, like the Thestrals and Pickett the naughty Bowtruckle. The Nibbler also redeems itself after all the quirks of the first movie, managing to nick the blood pact pendant from Grindelwald at the Lestrange mausoleum. Considering the legendary battle between Dumbledore and Grindelwald that’s slated to happen in 1945 (16 years away from the timeline Crimes of Grindelwald is set in), it will be interesting to see what leads to Dumbledore’s victory.
The kelpie, the matagots, the augurey, the leucrotta and the zouwu all make an appearance in this film (guess which one’s which), giving us the time to soak in what a visual splendour this film is. It also deepens our understanding of Newt’s unconditional benefit of doubt to beings he sees good in, beast or human.
For a full guide to the beasts in Crimes of Grindelwald, click here.
The Women of the Wizarding World
One striking feature of the Harry Potter universe for me personally, especially over the last few years where I have tried to develop a feminist perspective, has been its women. Molly Weasley, Hermoine Granger, Minerva McGonagall, Bellatrix Lestrange, Rita Skeeter, Dolores Umbridge and others — they all brought their own flavour to the proceedings of the story. Be it their resilience or utter evil, these are memorable women. The Fantastic Beasts movies fall short here. The action revolves around secretive, manipulative, naive and confused men- Newt, Jacob, Grindelwald and Credence.
Let’s look at what we have to work with here — Tina and Queenie Goldstein, Leta Lestrange, Nagini and Vinda Rosie (the obviously sinister french right-hand assistant to Grindelwald. I think we can all agree that Queenie’s turn of character was easily one of the most annoying parts of the plot (and I don’t mean this critically). As a character in the story though, we see her moving from an eccentric and quirky mind reader to an irritatingly desperate lover who is willing to forget about the concept of consent as long as it gets her what she wants.
Nagini’s maledictus story just leave a sour taste in the mouth. Only women get this curse, she ends up becoming a slave to one of the nastiest men we know and we still don’t know how she ended up there or what she’s meant to contribute to this story. Patience Lavanya, yes I remember, but it’s getting particularly hard as we hover over characters introduced and left to hang in this film’s plot.
I wasn’t a big fan of Tina Goldstein even in the first film. I felt she was too temperamental and incredibly gullible to be an auror. Crimes of Grindelwald did little to change my mind about her, strengthening my first impression instead. What is it with Potter universe folks who are intelligent but so emotionally deficient? Some things don’t change do they?
In the emotions department, we have the guarded Leta Lestrange. She gets quite a bit of screen time in the film. Seeing how the film ends and how her place in Newt’s life was already made clear by the photograph in the first film, we understand. Her melancholic eyes and careful conversations carry the demons of her past — of rejection, jealousy and mistrust. Her sacrifice sadly doesn’t redeem her. I walked out wondering how different her life would have been if she had picked the Scamander brother she actually loved. I wondered if there was ever a way for her to rise and be more than just an unwanted daughter, a pretty fiance in some of the most gorgeous satin ensembles I have seen, and a character of colour. Being the one woman who got some dedicated effort and time from the writers, she leaves us wishing she got more.
Why we will still watch the next one
Let’s be honest. The movie did not suck. A film that slowly and painstakingly explained stories we didn’t always care for (Queenie and Jacob for instance) gathered steam in the second half. The action went up a notch, the drama a few thousand notches higher. It became a performance, with Grindelwald’s grandeur, the perplexed good guy trying to save the day (Newt and his Nibbler to be fair), damsels in distress (Leta and, sigh, Tina), an all-too-obvious defection (Queenie) and the most curious and simultaneously frustrating twists of all time!
Will we wait to watch the next film? Why of course! Crimes of Grindelwald seemed to be the sowing season, with seeds being carefully planted to bloom into plot points for the other three installments. With so many stories written and left at their nascent and halfway points, there’s a lot riding on the remaining films to carry these ambitious stories to their finish lines.