The last time I was this devastated by the imaginary happenings of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World was due to the death of Sirius Black. The Crimes of Grindenwald compounds that trauma since pretty much no one gets out of this film unscathed. Critics and fans might include themselves in that number too. This second installment of the Fantastic Beasts series received a frosty reception by those who took issue with its sloppy writing and convoluted plot, fair points on both accounts. For what it’s worth though, which is not a lot, I’ve spent more hours with this movie than with all the other films and books combined.
Sure, I’ll cop to being superficial and acknowledge that the cast is partly the reason. Former Burberry models Eddie Redmayne and Callum Turner are fucking snacks in their woolen three-piece suits. Then there’s Jude Law, a man who can do smoking hot pope and smoking hot wizard prof. Zoe Kravitz holds it down for the ladies. I’ve never wanted to be an emotionally tortured witch from the 1920s as much as I do when I see her, and her wardrobe. In fact, the whole costume department can come over and outfit me for the day, or forever. The handsome period clothing is also matched by the film’s sumptuous design, with Europe proving a far lusher playground than gloomy post-war America.
The malcontents are not wrong about the film’s faults though. The story, which takes place a shortly after the events of the first movie, is slow to come together. Magizoologist Newt Scamandar (Redmayne) is back in London after tearing up New York. He briefly reunites with his former Hogwarts teacher, Dumbledore (Law), who seeks his help on another errand that will likely get both in trouble with the Ministry. Events soon force Newt and the others to travel to France, where everyone is pursuing the mysterious Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). American auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), who tried to protect him in America, follows the young man to Paris, keeping an eye on those who seek to kill or corrupt him. Grimmson, a bloodthirsty bounty hunter employed by the British Ministry of Magic, and Yusef Kama (William Nadylam), a shady Frenchman with a grudge, both want him dead, while the dark wizard Grindenwald (Johnny Depp), aided by his band of pureblood acolytes, hopes to use Credence for his own ends.
With no book as a guide, there’s a lot to piece together, and even the film’s 134 minute run time seems too short to do its story and characters justice. Director David Yates works with a script penned by Rowling, but they don’t filter out which of the many details are most important for this particular movie. Whereas the first film was largely about Newt and Tina’s efforts to protect Credence, Crimes of Grindenwald is missing a similar overriding narrative. At times, it is focused on Credence’s search for his true identity, and at others, it is about Grindenwald’s attempt to upend the world order, replacing it with one in which witches and wizards reign superior. Leta Lestrange (Kravitz) also finds herself at the center of things. Newt’s best and only friend from Hogwarts, Leta is now engaged to his brother, Theseus (Turner), and remains haunted by a past that she’s reluctant to revisit.
The lack of strong relationships is one reason why the film seems so disjointed. The movie conspires to keep everyone apart, creating a certain amount of tension but also scattering the characters across different ends of Britain and Paris. We know Newt and Tina grow closer, but we don’t even see her for a good half hour. Meanwhile, Queenie (Alison Sudol), Tina’s sister, and her no-maj baker boyfriend, Jacob (Dan Fogler), part in anger after crashing at Newt’s flat. She’s left wandering the streets of Paris by herself. The two men then travel to France to pursue their significant others, but it turns into a real downer of a trip. Newt is too distracted by everything else to pay much attention to his best bud, and with no one as his foil, Jacob ends up looking deflated. There are good reasons for his pessimism, but the camaraderie between the two was something I was looking forward to. Fogler is great with a wry one-liner or a flummoxed stare, and he doesn’t get many chances to flex that humor here.
The actors do their best to make up for gaps in storytelling though. Redmayne and Miller ease back into their roles, finding new points of turmoil for Newt and Credence, and Sudol reveals a different side to Queenie, one in which her good and trusting nature leads to desperation. Queenie and Jacob share only a few scenes this time around, but they capitalize on them with some truly heart-wrenching moments. Likewise, the script doesn’t reveal much in the way of Newt and Theseus’s strained relationship, and we get just a few flashes of the ill will that’s been brewing for years. As Grindenwald’s threat grows, however, the brothers are forced to come together in a raw and pained confrontation.
Yet the actors’ committed portrayals in the final act are a reason why I was a little disappointed. The emotional gut punches come mostly at the end, making the rest of the film a long waiting game. The first two-thirds of the movie aren’t as stirring as they need to be and leave too many of these rich, dynamic characters hanging. Of the neglected characters and storylines, none is more underserved than Leta and Theseus’s relationship. A burning love story exists somewhere, but we hardly get to see it. That’s a shame because not only are Kravitz and Turner sexy beasts, their romance also informs so much of Newt’s character. There’s a lot of unpacking to be done regarding Dumbledore and Grindenwald’s relationship as well, work left to the remaining three films. Similarly, Nagini (Claudia Kim) is overlooked. Best known as Voldermort’s serpent companion, she still exists in human form and befriends Credence after they meet in the circus. Kim has about two lines in the whole movie and spends most of it looking very worried. If we don’t see much more of her as the series progresses, then Rowling might as well have left her out.
This brings us to a major criticism of Crimes of Grindenwald and one that I hope is corrected in the next film. The treatment of women, from lead character Tina to Newt’s fawning assistant, Bunty (Victoria Yeates), isn’t flattering. With the exception of Queenie, most are secondary to their male counterparts. Vinda (Poppy Corby-Tuech) does the bidding of Grindenwald, Nagini comforts Credence, and Bunty can’t seem to get a handle on any fantastic creature without Newt around. Even Tina is sidelined. The tenacious auror who proved all of the Magical Congress of America wrong, she does one thing of actual consequence – zapping Theseus, who is in hot pursuit of his brother, with a spell. Most maligned, however, is Leta. The embodiment of the tragic mulatto, she doesn’t get her due; rather than coming into her own, she is defined by her relationship to other men, be it Newt or Theseus or Credence. Nevertheless, I found Kravitz’s performance most moving, and having just seen the film for the nth time, I’m still picking up the pieces of my broken little heart. If Crimes of Grindenwald is an opening act for what’s to follow, then I’m very open.
Prod: David Heyman, J.K. Rowling, Steve Kloves, Lionel Wigram
Dir: David Yates
Writer: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, William Nadylam, Kevin Guthrie, Jude Law, Johnny Depp
Time: 134 min
Lang: English, some French
Country: United Kingdom