Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald review – Jude Law's Dumbledore shines

JK Rowling’s creative imagination is as fertile as ever, but the second film in the series is bogged down by franchise detail

Fewer beasts; more crimes. This second adventure in JK Rowling’s movie series about unworldly young magizoologist Newt Scamander, engagingly played by Eddie Redmayne, takes the inevitable darker and more sombre turn. The storyline is initially clotted with sneaky narrative about-turns, reactivating characters from the last film, rescuing them from apparent destruction or memory loss; there are unresolved mysteries and a general sense of disquieting forces and intricate implications that may take many films to sort out.

Rowling’s Wizarding World epic includes specific references to the Hogwarts universe that we already know and love, younger versions of the old characters, and so in some ways has a more prequelised look, with hints of an origin myth. But as so often with fantasy adventure, the stormclouds are rolling in and the story is inexorably weighted towards a titanic battle of good and evil. It is just as spectacular as the wonderful opening film, with lovingly realised creatures, witty inventions and sprightly vignettes. But I couldn’t help feeling that the narrative pace was a little hampered, and that we are getting bogged down, just a bit, in a lot of new detail. Having said which: the architectural detail of JK Rowling’s creativity is as awe-inspiring as ever.

Now we must contend with the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, played by Johnny Depp with a single Marilyn Manson-style contact lens. Like Magneto in the X-Men, he believes in superpower-superiority; Grindelwald absolutely rejects the idea of peaceful co-existence with the muggles, and insists that the only realistic way for wizards to survive and thrive is to establish absolute dominance over these no-maj types – under his own tyrannical rule. And what of his “crimes”? These, it seems, may still be all in the future. The film is set, like the first, in the late 1920s, but in a climactic scene of frenzied rhetoric, Grindelwald gives his followers a vision of the horrors to come in the next 10 or 15 years: war and destruction. All this, he claims, is what he wants to avoid. But it is ambiguous.

Johnny Depp in the film

Grindelwald begins in custody, the way we left him at the end of the last film, a brooding Lecterian figure who is far from resigned to incarceration. In Paris we are reacquainted with a now vitally important figure: Credence, a troubled young man played by Ezra Miller, who may hold the key to the future of wizarding. Is he good or evil? The choice isn’t as simple as that. Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is also in Paris on wizarding business, and poor Newt is still in love with her, but she has cooled on him, due to a misunderstanding about his relationship with Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), who is engaged to Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), an official magic functionary who is trying to rehabilitate Newt’s reputation with the powers that be. Dan Fogler reprises his likeable turn as Newt’s no-maj pal Jacob, who is still together with Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol).

But the most striking newcomer is young Albus Dumbledore, well played by Jude Law, an enigmatic and charming figure who persuades Newt that he must travel to Paris to find Credence and confront his own destiny. Albus of course is Newt’s former teacher, and there is a very funny flashback scene when he encourages younger Newt to come face-to-face with his boggart, the form of his worst fear. Newt’s greatest fear is working in an office, so his boggart is a miserable little desk with a typewriter that turns into a snarling monster.

Albus is now well-known to be gay, and in this film he reveals himself to have been as close as brothers with a certain character as a young man. Actually, closer than brothers. The relationship was intense. There was a commingling of blood. But his gayness is only fleetingly and indirectly represented.

This Fantastic Beasts film is as watchable and entertaining as expected and it’s an attractive Christmas event, but some of the wonder, novelty and sheer narrative rush of the first film has been mislaid in favour of a more diffuse plot focus, spread out among a bigger ensemble cast. There’s also a more self-conscious, effortful laying down of foundations for a big mythic franchise with apocalyptic battles still way off below the horizon. I would have liked to see a lot more from that superb performer, Katherine Waterston, but Redmayne’s Newt is becoming a real character: gentle, shy, with a childlike quality that doesn’t really change no matter how scary things get.

• Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is released on 16 November


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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