Dir: David Yates; Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Jude Law, Johnny Depp. Cert 12A, 133 mins.
You need to be good at family trees to keep up with the second Fantastic Beasts feature. JK Rowling has written a fantastically complicated screenplay, full of brothers, sisters and star-crossed lovers who all have fraught relationships with one another. An explosive final reel, set around the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, only goes a certain distance towards making matters clearer.
Like its predecessor, The Crimes of Grindelwald has some very dark moments that veer off into the realm of Fritz Lang-like film noir. These are interspersed with plenty of knockabout comedy. The performances are every bit as vivid as the special effects. Director David Yates and his team show their now expected levels of virtuoso craftsmanship. In terms of production values, this is Rolls Royce filmmaking. The film boasts an astonishing level of visual detail and inventiveness. The only drawback is that Rowling has included so many different characters and sub-plots that the narrative momentum is sometimes lost.
The film opens a year on from its predecessor, in New York in 1927. Dark wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is under lock and key. The American Ministry of Magic has gone to extreme lengths to stop him escaping.
Over in London, 13 months later, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is busy with his magical beasts. He’s a Gerald Durrell-like figure, never happier than when he is feeding or exercising his animals – his beloved nifflers, kelpies and assorted other creepy-crawlies. After the happenings in the last movie, he is still deeply distrusted at the British Ministry of Magic where his more straitlaced brother Theseus (Callum Turner) works. Newt is banned from travelling aboard. However, with the 100-year peace between wizards and non-wizards under severe threat from Grindelwald, Newt’s services may well be needed. When he is approached by his old teacher, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law looking very dashing and Richard Hannay-like in a tweed suit), he reluctantly agrees to help.
Newt may seem chaotic and impractical but he is just as courageous as he was in the first film. As Dumbledore notes of him, he doesn’t seek favour or popularity but simply asks if a thing is “right”. Redmayne plays him in sly fashion, making sure that we are always aware that, for all his bumbling, he is practical, resourceful and principled.
Many of the protagonists from the first film reappear. Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), the rotund and cheery bakery owner, hasn’t had his memory “obliviated” after all. He is still in love with Queenie (Alison Sudol, who delivers her lines in a breathless, Marilyn Monroe-like gasp), even if she has been using her wizarding powers to keep him besotted.
Romantic misunderstandings abound. Queenie’s sister Tina Goldstein (Waterston) isn’t at all sure that Newt loves her any more. Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) is engaged to Theseus but it’s hinted that Newt may be her real sweetheart. Lots of the characters here are searching for answers about their true family identities or the real feelings of their loved ones. Dumbledore has “history” with Grindelwald. They were once very close indeed. Now, the evil wizard seems like his dark reflection.
The casting of Depp was criticised in certain quarters following his divorce from Amber Heard amid allegations of domestic abuse. Whatever the upheavals in his private life, Depp is still a consummate screen actor. His portrayal of Grindelwald rekindles memories of his old mentor, Vincent Price, in some of his more outré roles. White haired, softly spoken and with very pale skin, he dresses in black and looks from a distance like a new romantic pop star. In his restraint and quiet malevolence, he is the utter antithesis of Depp’s Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Depp features far more prominently here than in the first film – but he is one character among many.
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This is an ensemble piece. At times, it becomes very cluttered. There are flashbacks to school days in which we see Newt as a youngster and Leta Lestrange using her magic to silence the school bullies. We are whisked from New York to London and then on to Paris. The plot has circus scenes, including South Korean actress Claudia Kim as the shape-shifting Nagini undergoing an extraordinary transformation, as well as chases and explosions. In one ill-judged montage, we peer into the future and the characters catch glimpses of the Second World War and of atomic bombs. With so different narrative strands, the storytelling risks becoming tangled. Even so, The Crimes of Grindelwald is rich and intriguing fare that will leave viewers impatient for the next sequel (if only so they can make more sense of what has been going on here.)
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is released in UK cinemas on 16 November
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