Questions about representation and problematic casting have dogged the movie since its inception
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald, the second movie in the Harry Potter spin-off franchise that began with 2016’s well-received Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, loosely based on author JK Rowling’s 2001 book of the same name, has had a rough time in almost all ways imaginable.The film, released on Friday, became the worst performing Potter movie to date, taking £48 million its opening weekend. That’s probably more than you made this weekend, but still surprisingly short of the £57 million that its predecessor took in the same time period.
Then again, maybe it’s not so surprising: the reviews have been lukewarm and its release was mired in controversy. Set in 1920s Paris, the tale follows the adventure of mild-mannered Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), tasked by a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to take down Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), an angry, uncompromising fella who wants to see wizarding sorts overthrow the muggles of the world.
As that extremely reductive synopsis suggests, this is one for the diehard fans only; you’d need a sheet of paper the size of Hagrid’s jock strap to sum it up. But things become knottier still when you explore the controversies, with questions of representation and problematic casting raising their heads like serpents determined to make JK Rowling tweet something defensive that gets her cancelled. Join us, then, as we don the Sorting Hat to figure out how the The Crimes Of Grindelwald became the most controversial Potter movie ever.
Johnny Depp’s casting
Back in November last year, the film’s director David Yates first defended the movie against a backlash that has only gathered momentum since. In August 2016, Depp and ex-wife Amber Heard settled a domestic abuse case in which she claimed that the actor subjected her to physical and emotional abuse during their marriage.
Asked about these allegations, Yates told Entertainment Weekly: “There’s an issue at the moment where there’s a lot of people being accused of things, they’re being accused by multiple victims, and it’s compelling and frightening. With Johnny, it seems to me there was one person who took a pop at him and claimed something.” He said that, in his experience, Depp is “full of decency and kindness” and that “whatever accusation was out there doesn’t tally with the kind of human being I’ve been working with”. Yates concluded: “It doesn’t bear any more analysis. It’s a dead issue.”
Yet Depp’s casting doesn’t seem to be a dead issue for many fans and commentators.
Actor Ezra Miller, who plays the villainous Credence Barebone, later claimed that none of the cast were consulted on Depp’s appearance in the movie, while Rowling’s attempt to defend the decision incensed her fans on Twitter. The Crimes of Grindelwald poster features Johnny Depp with this back to the camera, suggesting that even the marketing team was embarrassed by the filmmakers’ choice of lead actor.
The alleged retro-fitting of Nagini’s race
In the Harry Potter books, bad dude Voldermort has a massive, terrifying serpent known as Nagini. In this latest prequel, we meet Nagini in her original, human form. The character is played by Claudia Kim, a fact that caused some fans to label the film “racist”. One such fan tweeted: “JK Rowling continues to be a huge ass racist mess but somehow people are using Nagini (a snake named in HINDI) being an East-Asian woman who is a submissive pet to the most evil white man in the universe to complain about the lack of LGBTQ+ rep in Harry Potter”. Questions of representation have dogged JK Rowling for some time, as it has often been suggested that the Harry Potter universe is overly white.
Rowling, for her part, responded the accusations on Twitter, writing: “The Naga are snake-like mythical creatures of Indonesian mythology, hence the name ‘Nagini.’ They are sometimes depicted as winged, sometimes as half-human, half-snake. Indonesia comprises a few hundred ethnic groups, including Javanese, Chinese and Betawi.” But Twitter had spoken: the snake was racist. Collect your woke tokens at the door.
In 2007, following the release of final Potter book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling told a crowd of 2,000 people that “Dumbledore is gay, actually”. This was, perhaps, the author’s first frisson at retro-fitting a character with personality traits that weren’t discussed in the books; she now does this so regularly, usually on Twitter, that sublime parody site Clickhole recently ran the headline: “Overstepping Her Bounds: J.K. Rowling Has Announced That Daenerys From ‘Game Of Thrones’ Has Crohn’s Disease“. And speculation over Dumbledore’s sexuality continues. In the movie, Law’s character and Grindelwald are represented as enjoying a relationship that’s best described as “intense”. When someone comments, “You were as close as brothers”, Dumbledore replies, “We were closer than brothers.”
Grindelwald later makes an impassioned speech in which he wants people to “live openly” and “love freely”; could his closeted sexuality form part of his motivation for being such a bad bastard? Alas, we never really find out, because these hints are as far as The Crimes of Grindelwald is willing to go; many commentators have criticised the movie for shying away from a subtext that could have made it pretty interesting, and potentially even progressive. As Vanity Fair put it: “The worst part… is that the film tries to have its cake and eat it too. It throws fans a few bones by alluding to Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship, yet Dumbledore seems unwilling or unable to admit that said relationship was romantic.”
Asked if the world is ready for an openly gay children’s icon, Jude Law replied, “I think the world is ready for it, and if it isn’t, it bloody well should be,” so hopefully the upcoming next Fantastic Beasts film will see Dumbledore hit up his local muggle gay club to liberate a few wands.
No-one even knows how to say Grindelwald’s name
There are continuity errors, and then there’s haphazard filmmaking. In the first movie, the character is referred to as Grindel-wald, but in the new movie, Dumbledore calls him Grindel-vald. Asked about it on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Jude Law replied: “It’s a very good question. I dived straight in calling him ‘Grindlevald’, assuming that because I have this very good friendship with him that I got it right,” he responded. “Eddie Redmayne pointed out halfway through the film, ‘I don’t call him that. I call him Grindelwald.’ But it was too late.” Sounds a little fishy, but he pressed ahead and continued: “I think it’s because Albus knows him well and at some point, Gellert said, ‘Can you please call me ‘Grindelvald’. I’m sticking to that.” Sounds a bit like no-one noticed Jude was mispronouncing Grindelvald’s name, to be honest.
The reviews were pretty craptastic
It’s possible that The Crimes of Grindelwald could have risen above the accusations of tokenism or sloppy filmmaking if the reviews were good and it succeeded at the box office. Hell, one of the two would have done. But the reviewers have been uniformly unimpressed.
NME concluded that “script-wise, it’s clear Rowling needs help. The dialogue is clunky, some jokes fail and characters wave their magic wands (literally and metaphorically) to get in and out of situations. In some places, it feels like chunks of the movie are missing. In others, the scenes drag.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote: “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.” According to Variety: “The film throws plenty of plot twists, loud noises, and multihued magical nebulae at us, but rarely is there much tension, or sense of adventure, or any real longing, just the feeling of watching one chess piece after another being moved into position.”
All in all: it seems the Fantastic Beasts spin-off needs to be sprinkled with a little magic dust, but the next instalment will surely shout “Expelliarmius!” at accusations of tokenism and problematic casting, ready to soar like a broomstick at the Quiddtich World Cup. They might even pronounce the characters’ names correctly!