The second film in the Fantastic Beasts series looks wonderful but is weighed down by exposition and arcane back stories as JK Rowling expands her wizarding universe
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (12A) **
Suspiria (18) ****
It’s hard not to be a little enchanted by Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. The second instalment of JK Rowling’s five-part cinematic prequel to the Harry Potter saga has all the beautiful design work, entertainingly oddball creatures and visual wonderment that a franchise of this size can buy and, rather smartly, it uses it to plunge us back into the fantastical world of shy magizooligist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) with the force of a wizard zipping between the No-Maj reality of us lowly humans and the chaotic netherworld swirling just beneath the surface. Sadly, it’s not long before the spell starts to weaken, in a large part thanks to Rowling’s novelistic desire to weave in reams of convoluted backstory that succeed only in overwhelming her duty as a screenwriter to propel the action forward in the timeframe of a single movie.
Picking up where the last one left off, the film – once again directed by series regular David Yates – sets the obligatory darker tone with newly revealed villain, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), using the dark arts to escape from prison so he can hunt down teenage orphan Creedence Barebone (Ezra Miller), whose portentous presence in the previous film hinted at some larger significance to the overarching mythology of Rowling’s world of witchcraft and wizardry. For those who don’t remember that previous instalment (and the narrative density of Rowling’s ever-expanding universe does tend to function as its own memory-erasing potion for those not heavily invested), the film quickly re-introduces us to its characters, only to push most of them – Newt’s No-Maj baker pal Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), half-blood sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol) – to the back-burner. Instead it focuses most of its energies on building up the significance of Creedence, with Newt kept in the action by his former Hogwarts teacher Albus Dumbledore – reintroduced here in the younger, more handsome form of Jude Law – who sends him on a covert mission to 1920s Paris to track Creedence down.
Dumbledore’s reintroduction is the first of several big crossovers with the Harry Potter films and though Law is an appealing addition, bringing just enough twinkly charisma to give us a sense of why Dumbledore will become such a prominent part of this saga, the film’s subsequent detour to Hogwarts feels like nostalgia overkill. At one point, for instance, it segues confusingly into flashbacks of Newt’s own time there in order to explore the significance of another character whose fate is, we’re later told, intimately tied up with Credence’s origins.
The film certainly works itself into a frenzy trying to infuse Creedence’s backstory with the sort of mythic significance that will justify all this plot attention. In the ensuing melee Newt starts to feel less and less like this saga’s main character, especially as the action focuses on Grindelwald’s proto-Fascist campaign to inspire his fellow witches and wizards to rise up against the No-Maj world. Depp – hair in a John Lydon cockatoo spike, bleach-blond moustache trimmed Terry-Thomas tight – may be suitably sinister, but the film’s allegorical overtones prove clunkier than usual, something not helped by Rowling’s failure to find smart cinematic ways to bury the requisite exposition. The movie frequently grinds to a halt as she scripts multiple scenes of characters standing around explaining things, yet these scenes never really clarify anything. Not only does this kill dramatic momentum, it ensures the film’s final plot-twist-that-cannot-be-named ends proceedings not on an intriguing cliffhanger (though a cliff is literally blown up) but with a question mark – a question mark unfortunately preceded by the word “huh”.
“Huh?” is a legitimate response to Suspiria as well. Whether you end up loving or loathing Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino’s radical remake of Dario Argento’s cult classic, there’s something gloriously pretentious and perverse about embracing the beautiful incomprehensibility of Argento’s cinematic fever dream and extrapolating from its twisted plot about a ballet school run by witches such a haunting and hallucinatory exploration of the way ideology and violence can delude people into doing terrible things. That’s not all that’s going on in this largely explanation-resistant remake, but it’s one of the narrative crumbs Guadagnino leaves for those intrepid enough to follow. Relocating the story to Berlin, circa 1977 – the year the original came out, but also the year of the Red Army Faction’s bombing campaign – the film follows an American student (Dakota Johnson) as she arrives in the divided city to study ballet under the famed Madam Blanc (Tilda Swinton).
Having left her own religious upbringing in mysterious circumstances, her arrival at the school coincides with both the recent disappearance of one of its students (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) and a behind-the-scenes power struggle for control of the secret coven for which the school is really a front. Both developments see Susie (Johnson) rise up the ranks of the company with uncommon speed, becoming more embroiled in the madness the more of it she uncovers.
And madness is the key word here. Although Guadagnino drains the film of Argento’s kaleidoscopic colour schemes (this might be the greyest, darkest, rainiest film since Seven), his preference for body horror over jump scares creates a lingering sense of despair and unease that synchs up well with a film that seems to be grappling – albeit abstractly – with the complex ways in which guilt and denial are inextricably bound up in any attempts to break the spell of the past. ■