Director: David Yates
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Zoë Kravitz, Ezra Miller, Claudia Kim, Callum Turner, William Nadylam
Although Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the final instalment in the cinematic Potterverse (for the time being), was released seven years ago, the fandom and thirst for more from the Wizarding World has far from died down. In 2001 (the same year Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone, the first instalment, was released), author J.K. Rowling released a spin-off book called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, all about the magical creatures that exist in that universe. In 2016 the film bearing the same name was released, its story based on some of the creatures that feature in the book and the adventures of its fictitious author, Newt Scamander, set 70 years prior to Harry’s own adventures. The Crimes of Grindelwald is the second film of a proposed five, adding more to the story and growing ever-deeper, much like the world of Potter did. Is it the sequel fans have been waiting for, or does it leave much to be desired? (*Insert Mirror of Erised joke here*.)
Crimes of Grindelwald picks up initially in 1927, six months after the events of Fantastic Beasts, with Grindelwald (Depp), an incredibly powerful wizard, imprisoned. During a high-security transfer that is supposed to take Grindelwald from the U.S to Europe to answer for his crimes, he inevitably escapes. Three months after this and we’re back with Newt Scamander (Redmayne), a magizoologist, as he is appealing to reinstate his ability to travel internationally after having it revoked due to the events of the previous film. The British Ministry of Magic offers Newt a chance to work with them in tracking down Credence Barebone (Miller) in exchange for returning his rights, to which he declines. However, after Newt discovers that his friend from New York, Tina Goldstein (Waterston), has gone looking for Credence herself, he decides to find and help her in spite of his travel ban. Alongside these events we have Grindelwald spreading his anti-Muggle/-No-maj (non-magical people) message to as many people that will listen. Newt and Tina, along with many other friends and authoritarians, attempt to track down Grindelwald and stop him from spreading his hateful message and causing harm to all, both magical and non-magical.
It’s actually a bit difficult to recall what happened in the film other than the first and last ten minutes. Crimes of Grindelwald is so content-heavy that numerous things seem to be happening at once with characters spreading themselves in all sorts of directions. Not only do we have Grindelwald and Newt’s own main storylines, there’s also Albus Dumbledore’s (Law), which is quite important because, you know, it’s Dumbledore, and Leta Lestrange’s (Kravitz), and Tina’s story, and Tina’s sister Queenie (Sudol), and Newt’s other pal Jacob (Fogler), and Credence… and those are just the main characters. There is also a slew of secondary characters trying to push through with their own stories and backgrounds. There are just too many characters apparently fighting for centre stage, and it amounts to something of a messy plot that can be a little confusing. It does take some concentration to keep up. Along with the sheer number of themes running through, from politics and race and death to love and family and sexual orientation, it’s really quite an onslaught on the senses. If this is supposed to be a kid’s film, then it’s not the darker themes that will put them off, it’ll be the inability to understand what the chocolate frog is going on.
What also dragged the film down was its editing and camerawork. Close-ups with characters perfectly central in the frame happened so often that it was as though director David Yates was unsure of what else to do when his characters interacted. It very much took away from any scenes that were supposed to be slightly more personal, such as one toward the beginning between Newt and his brother Theseus (Turner). Add on top of this the editing, particularly during a speech given by Grindelwald toward the latter end of the film, and you may be unsure as to whether or not the editor and director had fallen asleep. The scene in question featured Johnny Depp walking around whilst preaching and the camera also moving, creating a wave of nausea (genuinely happened). The notion of ‘less is more’ must have been non-existent during production, which is potentially fatal to such a story- and character-heavy film. It’s a shame, because the film has so much to offer, it just doesn’t know how to present it.
On a positive note (finally), you may still come away feeling like you have seen something that has deepened the understanding of the wider Wizarding World. It’s not quite the same feeling a Potter-based film (or book) would leave you with, but the familiar characters and musical scores that pop up in Crimes of Grindelwald provide a sense of comfort and familiarity in what is really a crazy world (something of a metaphor for reality, perhaps). This is helped along by some of the performances. Redmayne’s Newt is as endearing as he was in the first movie, keeping us by his side like Pickett in his pocket. When Redmayne is onscreen all eyes will be on him as his presence owns the scenes in which he appears. This can be detrimental when it comes to other characters trying to get their own stories across, though this is not a fault of the actors or the characters. Conversely, Depp’s Grindelwald is really rather a plain villain, though this probably has a lot to do with inevitable comparisons to Voldemort. If Grindelwald had come first (film- and book-wise as opposed to chronologically) the roles would have been reversed and Voldemort would have been compared to Grindelwald by audiences. Of course there’s still a lot to come from Grindelwald, so it’s early days to really say he is not on the level of Voldemort or a strong antagonist in his own right. Then there’s also Law’s Dumbledore, with inevitable comparisons to Michael Gambon’s performance (more so than Michael Harris, due to his only being involved in the first two Potter films). Law’s performance is reminiscent of Gambon’s, and the hair and make-up departments have done their jobs well for likeness (not so much the costume department, but that’s a whole other argument), but there are a lot of questions to be asked surrounding inaccuracies between past and future Dumbledore, including the actual time he was teaching and whether he taught Defence Against the Dark Arts. Besides canonical inaccuracies, it’s a decent introduction to a younger and more naïve Dumbledore. The performances of supporting characters are generally on point, but as previously mentioned the characters seem to be fighting for centre stage, so it’s difficult to really gauge performances when they’re on top of each other. It seems that overall, performances are good (partly because most of the actors have already built themselves sterling reputations, so even if their performance wasn’t as good as usual you can probably assume it’s not entirely their fault), but the story and individual plotlines let them down.
Crimes of Grindelwald feels more like three films smashed into one. It isn’t entirely terrible, but neither is it in any way great or as smooth and enjoyable as its predecessor. It was difficult to decide how many stars to give it. Three stars might seem more generous than this review would have you believe, but erring on the side of leniency, three stars is representative of the likelihood of enjoying it more on a second watch and wanting the franchise to succeed and hoping it’ll improve. The fantastical elements are there, and there are some character arcs that you can enjoy to an extent, it’s just too much like an overdone Christmas tree. It may also make you wonder what could possibly be left to fill another three films. Everything is supposed to culminate in 1945, so there’s a good eighteen fictional years of events to happen, it just depends on what those events will be and how many characters will eventually be involved. The next instalment could do with a good cleanse of unnecessary characters and its focus needs to be streamlined onto those that will be directly involved in the eventual climax. It’s entirely possible that a second or third viewing could improve opinions (which is what happened with the first film), but even then, there’s a feeling of reluctance to watch it again. Let’s hope the filmmakers learn from their mistakes on Crimes of Grindelwald and scale it back for their next outing.