We may be only two films into a projected five of the Potterverse prequel series Fantastic Beasts from mega-bestselling author J.K. Rowling, but The Crimes of Grindelwald wastes no time conjuring both the magic and the tragic.
Playing out like the dark side of Star Wars in The Empire Strikes Back, this thickening plot of murky pasts, torn identities and poisoned minds packs a Voldemort-like wallop.
The Hollywood Reporter’s Caryn James calls it a “high-stakes battle between good and evil”, while The Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan praised its political turn as “a metaphor for the modern world if ever there were one”.
The fun and frothy original was essentially a romantic comedy as floppy-fringed Eddie Redmayne’s socially awkward magizoologist, Newt Scamander, fell for Katherine Waterson’s (Alien: Covenant) magic detective ‘Auror’ Tina and muggle Jacob (Dan Folger) was bowled over by ditzy Queenie (Alison Sudol).
The sequel complicates both relationships. Fleshing out a young Newt’s Hogwarts flirtation with Leta Lestrange (Big Little Lies’ Zoë Kravitz), shunned because of bad family rumours, hubble-bubble, there’s jealously in this cauldron.
Tina spurns Newt, even as Leta’s actually with his brother, Theseus (Callum Turner, War & Peace). Meanwhile, in more problematic territory, Queenie magically coerces Jacob into an engagement.
The real meat comes in the expansion of the first film’s religious fundamentalism storyline that saw Samantha Morton’s wicked stepmother prey on the conflicted mind of adopted son Credence Barebone (a creepy Ezra Miller).
After all-but-destroying Manhattan last time round, he’s hiding out in Paris with Claudia Kim’s blood-cursed Nagini who, Potter fans already know, is doomed to become Voldemort’s giant snake pet.
All the while, villainous death-to-all-muggles Voldemort/Hitler equivalent, Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), seeks to manipulate Credence’s search for his real mother, in a twisted take on the Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker saga.
Brilliantly, a tweedily handsome Jude Law joins the cast as a younger Dumbeldore, lighting up the screen in a small but crucial role.
But while the movie looks magical, even in darker, dementor-like hues, the stardust is dulling behind the scenes.
Rowling faced a backlash on Twitter for mixing up her myths and for the racial optics of casting a South Korean actor in an arguably stereotypical role as Nagini. Although, Kim disagreed, telling Entertainment Tonight “she wants to stay a human being, and I think that’s a wonderful contrast to the character”.
More disturbing, particularly given that Queenie plotline, the Scottish author and returning director David Yates faced a barrage of criticism for casting alleged domestic abuser Depp, with Rowling defending the choice on her Pottermore site, claiming, “conscience isn’t governable by committee”.
While the epic drama of impossible choices and sacrifices had me crying at the final act, I can see why Rowling’s battle cry for equality on social media platforms can seem undermined by her actions.
Why has no female director ever been given the top job in the Potterverse movies? Is her racial representation up to scratch?
And it’s all very well retooling Dumbledore as gay, but is one coy line suggesting that he and Grindelwald were “closer than brothers” enough support for her LGBTIQ+ fans?
Not everyone’s a fan of the movie either, with the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis saying Rowling has “so cluttered up the story that you spend far too much time trying to untangle who did what to whom and why”.
I was spellbound by its Greek mythology-like messed-uped-ness, but are those editorial choices OK? Maybe it’s time Grindelwald magically changed his face again.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is in cinemas now