This review contains spoilers.
The latest film in the Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald focuses on magical creatures specialist Newt Scamander’s search in Paris for the immensely powerful, frightened and dangerous teenager Credence. The dark wizard Grindelwald is seeking to recruit Credence to his cause. The established powers of the magical world would, understandably, like to stop this happening.
As a fantasy blockbuster, it’s not the most compelling thing in the world. Like most films of its type at the moment, it’s so plotted it might as well be plotless: things happen in a vaguely logical sequence but it doesn’t really add up to coherent narrative drive.
That was a problem with the first film as well, though. And, I don’t think The Crimes of Grindelwald is as good as the first film, but it does have its compensations: namely that it’s a thing lovely to look at. The gorgeous, inventive 1930s costumes. The lovingly-rendered magical creatures in Newt’s menagerie. And, ahem, Newt himself, played by Eddie Redmayne, who brings a level of conviction to the role that miraculously lifts it out of stereotypical-nerd-boy territory, and which the rest of the film doesn’t quite deserve.
Oh, but. Let’s talk about ideological problems, because we all know that is where my critical heart lies. I’m fascinated by the way this film – this franchise, really – is so invested in the idea of family ties, despite its overt rejection of Grindelwald’s ideology of racial purity. Credence’s entire plot arc is about searching for his family, searching, as he puts it, for who he is; the film’s implication is that not finding his family is what makes him turn ultimately to Grindelwald. Meanwhile, there’s a simmering tension between Newt and his brother Theseus; a plot point involving the family of Theseus’ fiancée Leto Lestrange, who is of course related to the Bellatrix Lestrange who terrorises the later-set Harry Potter series; a full-blown argument between Newt’s friend Queenie and her Muggle boyfriend Jacob about the laws that prevent Muggles and magical people from marrying; and the fact that Newt’s crush Tina is Queenie’s sister. Everyone in this film is related to each other, in a way that seems to reinforce Grindelwald’s ideas that blood purity, and specifically blood ties, are what make the wizarding world strong. It’s the breaking of those ties that drive people into Grindelwald’s arms.
The film’s ideological muddle is best illustrated by the Queenie-Jacob subplot. In a nutshell, Jacob won’t marry Queenie, though he wants to, because it would make her a social pariah in wizarding circles, and is against the law in those circles anyway. Her unhappiness with this state of affairs eventually pushes her into Grindelwald’s faction, despite the fact that one of Grindelwald’s stated aims is to subjugate Muggles and prevent magical people from marrying them? I don’t think the film does anywhere near enough work to convince us that Queenie can really see this as a viable solution to the specific social problem she and Jacob are encountering. Everything about how she has been positioned as a character suggests that she’d be the very last person to support Grindelwald.
Part of the film’s problem is, I think, that it’s reaching for sophomoric political relevance in its portrayal of Grindelwald as charismatic demagogue. It’s trying, in a fairly shallow and obvious way, to talk about what makes otherwise sympathetic people support hateful ideologies (the shadow of Donald Trump, and, more historically, Adolf Hitler, rears up behind Grindelwald). It wants to talk about how social displacement radicalises people like Credence and Queenie – but it does so without taking account of the particular political tensions and divides that Rowling’s already written into her world. The status quo of the wizarding world already depends on blood ties and blood purity, so it’s not as if joining Grindelwald’s faction is upending the status quo in any particularly meaningful way.
(Actually, it occurs to me at this point that Grindelwald’s actual politics are only nebulously defined, beyond “enslave the Muggles”. Like Darth Vader and Sauron, he’s essentially just a symbol of Evil, which makes the kind of nuance Rowling is aiming for here tricky to achieve.)
Let’s talk about the film’s romances here a bit, shall we? Because they are Not Good. Newt may be utterly adorable as a character, but even so it’s hard to overlook the fact that he travels to Paris partly because he’s learned that his crush Tina is working there. Tina is under the unfortunate impression that Newt is engaged to somebody else, a misunderstanding that, in the worst traditions of on-screen romance, neither of them quite gets around to resolving for the next two and a half hours. For gods’ sake. If you can’t manage to have a reasonable conversation now how are you going to navigate any kind of serious relationship? And it’s actually a bit creepy to go abroad specifically to locate your romantic interest. Newt’s endearing social ineptitude obscures that creepiness but doesn’t excuse it.
And then there’s Queenie and Jacob, who the film’s trying to sell as a loving and reasonably stable couple. But…the very first time we see them, Queenie has enchanted Jacob in the hopes of coercing him into marrying her. And the very last time we see them, when Queenie chooses Grindelwald, Jacob says, “You’re crazy”. Not only is this an ableist slur, it’s one deliberately chosen to hurt Queenie specifically; her mind-reading powers have often seen her labelled “crazy” in the past, and she’s explicitly asked Jacob not to use the word to describe her. Of course, Jacob is angry and hurt at this point, but he’s also being positioned as the reasonable one, the “good” one, in this particular transaction; he is not choosing the dark side. So the film is endorsing his casual cruelty towards a woman he presumably, at this point, still loves.
The Crimes of Grindelwald, then, is a lazy film: one which wants to think of itself as more progressive and liberal than it really is. (I haven’t even touched on the Dumbledore controversy: the relationship between him and Grindelwald, which Rowling has implied in interviews and on Twitter was a romantic one, remains textually just a close platonic friendship.) It’s latched onto The Current Political Situation without thinking about how it would realistically affect the wizarding world, and it uses the same toxic romantic clichés as every single capitalist Hollywood blockbuster. But then, Rowling’s work has always been like this: full of unexamined, unsophisticated good vibes that unwittingly perpetuate systems of oppression. It doesn’t mean it’s not fun to watch. But it’s not good either.