Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore ***
Starring: Eddie Redmayme, Jude Law, Mads Mikkelsen, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Jessica Williams
Director: David Yates
When Harry Potter author JK Rowling outed central character Albus Dumbledore as gay after the publication of the final book, it left many scratching their heads as to why this important piece of characterisation was left out of the novels. Was it pressure from international publishers that led her to leave it out? Or was its inclusion retrospective queer-baiting? Whatever the answer, LGBT+ Potterheads were overjoyed at their representation within the Wizarding World. However, just as Rowling steered clear of depicting the aged wizard’s sexuality directly, so too did their big-screen adaptations. And now that Dumbledore’s back-story has finally taken centre-stage for spin-off series Fantastic Beasts, it seemed inevitable that his sexual identity would finally be acknowledged. However, it has taken them three films to do so. And in a film ominously entitled The Secrets Of Dumbledore, it would have been remiss for director Yates (The Harry Potter series, The Legend Of Tarzan) to continue to ignore it in this third instalment.
After the escape of arch-villain Gellert Gindelwald (Mikkelsen - Another Round, Doctor Strange), magizoologist Newt Scamander (Redmayne - The Danish Girl, The Theory Of Everything) is recruited by Dumbledore (Law - Sherlock Holmes, The Talented Mr Ripley) to lead a team of wizards and muggles to tackle his meteoritic rise as he attempts to take over the Wizarding World. Prevented from fighting himself due to a blood pact, Dumbledore is forced to entrust the future of the world to the young wizard and his encyclopaedic knowledge of fantastic beasts.
Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald is tackled in the opening scene, in which the titular wizard reveals the true nature of their decades-long friendship. You can almost hear the fan-base screaming with excitement as he says the words “I was in love with you”, while international distributors groaned into their spreadsheets. But it’s there, bold as brass, and referred to many times throughout the film. Though their former love for each other is hugely significant to plot, it is refreshingly inconsequential elsewhere, which is handled well, both by Yates and Law.
However, there’s something sadly dissatisfying about this film, just like the Fantastic Beasts series as a whole. Rowling received international acclaim - and rightly so - for the richness of the world she created and the likability of Harry, Ron and Hermione. Having spent the first two books establishing the norms of this world, she seriously upped the ante and subverted these norms for the rest of the series, aiming much bigger, higher and wider as the teenage wizard battled Voldemort. So, too, does the third Fantastic Beasts film try the same, focusing much more on the bigger picture of Dumbledore vs. Grindelwald than the minutiae of Scamander and his critters. And the film is better for it. But where the Potter stories were rich with subplot and character detail, this is a SFX-drenched explosion-fest that’s all belt and no knickers, sacrificing its essential human heart for a whole lot of window-dressing.
The film will likely be remembered as the movie in which Johnny Depp was unceremoniously dumped from the franchise following accusations from ex-wife Amber Heard. With the film released precisely at the time of the defamation case against the latter, Mikkelsen’s introduction to the series in Depp’s place has been overshadowed by the media frenzy happening elsewhere. But that does Mikkelsen a real disservice, with the Danish actor delivering a superb performance as the antagonist, with a much more nuanced depiction of pure evil than Depp’s cartoon-like incarnation. Mikkelsen is undoubtedly the stand-out in a film of otherwise average performances, with Jude Law perfectly fine as Dumbledore and Redmayne even more doe-eyed - and looking weirdly younger - than the second film.
As you would expect, there are vast set-pieces aplenty aiming to set the pulse racing and showcase the film’s gigantic budget. And though the Harry Potter films were also guilty as charged, the lines that joined the dots there are completely absent here. Instead you’re left with an impressive visual spectacle quite spectacularly lacking in substance. Grindelwald attempts to grasp power democratically, which is a first for the franchise, certainly. But with its final act revolving around the election, the film would certainly have been richer to have invested more time and energy in depicting this process and his rivals over just so many chase scenes.
A mediocre cash-cow, this third spin-off instalment looks more like a video-game than any kind of Wizarding reality, substantial or otherwise. And with Easter eggs dropped hitter and thither, it’s a real shame that it’s just these that please narratively, instead of anything new that the film can deliver to the Potter-verse. And those secrets we were promised from Dumbledore? It looks like they were delivered in the opening scene. And we all knew them anyway!
UK Release: Out now in cinemas, released by Warner Bros.