By no means perfect (and in some ways merely middling), The Crimes of Grindelwald feels a bit more Potter and a bit less Beasts – to both its credit and detriment.
After the first film, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is petitioned by Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to go to Paris and deal with the growing threat of Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). Newt tries to track him down as Grindelwald escalates attempts to eradicate humanity and enlist Creedence Barebone (Ezra Miller).
I enjoyed the first film despite its flaws, and I would say I feel exactly the same way about this one. Directed by the steady hand of David Yates – director of all Potters from Order of the Phoenix onwards – the movie once again takes a script from J.K. Rowling and embellishes her wizarding world, for better and for worse.
Yates sneaks in some unique visuals, including viewpoint angles that almost break the fourth wall – quite a change from the Potter movies. He’s very good at staging dialogue and speeches, but is hamstrung somewhat in the action scenes because they unfortunately rely too much on special effects. However, he gets across urgency, tension and tone when he can, which roots the drama.
Effects are weak simply because – and the Potter films found this – there’s no heft to magical battles when it’s just wands and CGI, though the beasts are the strong point, alongside Stuart Craig’s distinctive, tangible set design. Whether the reassuring stone of Hogwarts, officious magic ministries or early 20th century Paris, you feel a sense of place and are rooted in the wizarding world. Visually however the film is a let down, as while the first did a great job of showing us 1920s New York City, Paris and London feel identically dour, grey and bleached of colour.
The film’s main strength and weakness is Rowling. While most Potter fans will be pleased that she’s taken control of the scripts, this means she can do what she wants to her own canon. Seeds are planted for the inevitable sequels, and some quite surprising revisions to her novels’ history. Personally I thought these changes were a bit stupid, but at least it’s Rowling doing this to her own stories and not someone else.
Her dialogue scenes are poor, and tonal shifts are jarring, and the first movie was far better balanced between the fun of Newt’s animals and the gathering doom of Grindelwald and Credence. Here Rowling goes too po faced, with very weak comedy not doing much to balance out the dark. It also all feels rushed – amazingly for a two and a half hour film.
On the plus side, most characters – while not particularly fleshed out – go through a moral quandary or crisis, and if judged better this could have made the movie stronger. As it is, these mini arcs are more than what most ensemble blockbuster characters get.
The eponymous beasts are few and far between unfortunately, and I think it’s quite clear that Newt’s creatures, particularly the Niffler, should be the stars of the show. Sidelining them for doom and gloom is a shame when the series is named after them. They also provide a lot of the comic relief and defuse tensions in the otherwise morose story.
I have to credit Rowling and Redmayne for persisting with a socially awkward, introverted blockbuster protagonist! You sense Newt is starting to come out of his shell, liking people more while still preferring animals, and Redmayne allows flashes of anger and rebellion as the plot moves on – going forward the character may yet get better.
Depp’s casting is the one thing most know about these films – they could have binned him, hired Colin Farrell back and given a better, less shitty human being a good villain role, but here we are. Perhaps given what we know of his indiscretions, he brings a distinctly creepy discomfort to this more nuanced villain (than Voldemort).
The actor appears engaged, offering hints of duality given his history with Dumbledore, and it’s that hint of humanity that makes the character a more seductive, sly bastard when converting wizards and witches to his cause. As we’re stuck with Depp (Rowling and Yates have no issues), we can at least look forward to interesting confrontations with Law’s Dumbledore.
Law’s glorified cameo was a shame – I wanted more young Dumbledore! Again the actor seems a bit more energised, strangely trying to match Michael Gambon’s odd, West Country lilt but perhaps better embodying the character’s “wheeler dealer”, sly manipulation of heroes to help him fight evil. As a more optimistic, active Dumbledore, I look forward to seeing what Law does down the line.
Katherine Waterston remains saddled with a weak main role, not given enough time to make an impression, and not strongly defining the character or engaging the viewer. Given what occurs you might expect some proper drama may be coming, but she’s just not an interesting foil to Redmayne, and is poorly served with little to do.
Conversely, Zoe Kravitz and Alison Sudol have interesting arcs as the mysterious Leta Lestrange and Queenie. Kravitz plays the character Waterston probably wishes she was, Leta an enigmatic and haunted soul whose back story is teased out alongside the main plot, culminates in the strongest strand of the film’s conclusion.
Sudol was the surprise element, in that her performance in the first never really became more than romantic interest, but here she visibly crumbles as Queenie faces moral choices, presenting an interesting way to continue hers and Jacob’s story. Dan Fogler is the weakest element of the comic relief, but in line with Queenie’s story has some quite touching dramatic scenes alongside Muggle pratfalls.
Finally, the criminally misused Ezra Miller returns as Credence, the actor’s intensity and excellent comedic timing both unused. Instead the film relies solely on his brooding features, and while there is certainly much to come from the character, it feels like a waste.
Despite this film’s faults – shockingly largely down to Rowling – it’s good to be back in the wizarding world, and I’m still interested in what’s to come.