Film of the week: J.K. Rowling has lost her magic touch
This second Potter prequel has some decent moments but is not a patch on its predecessor, says Paul Whitington
Oh for the Midas touch of J.K. Rowling, with her divine knack for spinning yarns and making money.
The Harry Potter film franchise (never mind the books) grossed almost $8billion, her Cormoran Strike crime novels have become an acclaimed BBC drama series, and in 2016 her Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them was a huge box office hit. That film marked her screenwriting debut, and she's also the author of this sequel, a windy, fog-laden affair in which the otherworldly wizard Newt Scamander (a kind of donnish messiah played by Eddie Redmayne) comes face to face with evil.
In his own good time, mind you. The 2016 film, the first Rowling movie not based on a fully-formed, pre-existing novel, seemed to benefit from this lack of creative encumbrance and truly flew along, bursting at the seams with visual invention and containing hardly a dull moment. It was better than any of the Potter films in my opinion, but this time the beast is out of the bag, as it were, meaning all involved have to work much harder. Scamander's bottomless, creature-infested suitcase seems a bit old hat, and Colin Farrell's deeply satisfying wizard villain Graves has been replaced by a more problematic baddie.
At the end of the first film, the cornered Graves was revealed to be the shape-shifting dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), a fastidious maniac who wants to collapse the magical world order and substitute a new one of his own. As Fantastic Beasts 2 opens he's cooling his heels in a Ministry of Magic prison in 1920s Manhattan when he seizes an opportunity to escape.
Grindelwald, who dresses gothically and is surrounded at all times by foppish flunkies who look like extras from a Marilyn Manson video, bears a particular animus towards Albus Dumbledore. They were once firm friends but fell out, and since Dumbledore (Jude Law) formed a blood pact with Grindelwald, he cannot oppose him. So as Grindelwald prepares to unleash the dogs of war, the question is, who will?
Newt's older brother Theseus (Callum Turner) works at the rather fascistic-sounding Ministry of Magical Enforcement, and urges his sibling to join the hunt for Grindelwald. Newt refuses - he detests politics and only cares about rescuing those weird and wonderful endangered creatures the rest of wizardry despises. But when Dumbledore turns up, Newt's persuaded to join the fight.
Happily, because she's great fun, Alison Sudol's ditzy New York sorceress Queenie returns, as does her hapless Muggle fiance Jacob (Dan Fogler), who accompany Scamander on a fraught expedition to Paris. Newt might seem sexless, but is mighty keen on Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a stern but handsome American Auror he formed a bond with in Fantastic Beasts And Where to Find Them. He also seems drawn to Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), a gifted but complexed old Hogwarts classmate. But she's engaged to Newt's brother, and that is only one of the complex relationships that will be sorely tested by Grindelwald's scheming.
It will also test your patience. While the original film zipped along breathlessly, The Crimes Of Grindelwald proceeds at an oddly funereal pace, dwelling lovingly on gloopy special effects that tend to occlude the actual drama. Redmayne is pretty good as Newt I suppose, though his diffident eccentricities seem a little more studied this time. And while Jude Law is excellent as a young and virile Dumbledore, we don't get to see that much of him, probably because he's being held in reserve for the next instalment.
Unfortunately, we see lots and lots of Grindelwald, an oily, mincing villain who's extremely fond of the sound of his own voice. Has Depp forgotten how to act? Have five outings as the pantomime dame Jack Sparrow shattered his thespian compass and any residual sense of restraint?
He has chosen stillness as a weapon in this film: his Grindelwald inhabits the stage with pouting menace, whispering poison commands into the ears of his underlings. He speaks with a 'British' accent of course, and sounds like a Tory Brexiteer who's been at the sherry.
He's impossible to take seriously and leaves a gaping hole that a menace on the scale of Ralph Fiennes's Voldemort should have occupied. It's the biggest problem in a film that entertains in spots and does boast some impressive effects, but is not a patch on its predecessor.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (12A, 134mins) - 3 stars
Films coming soon...
The Girl In The Spider's Web (Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, Stephen Merchant, Vicky Krieps); Robin Hood (Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Ben Mendelsohn, Jamie Dornan); Shoplifters (Lily Franky, Sakura Ando); The Camino Voyage (Glen Hansard).
Suspiria (18, 153mins) - 3 stars
Sicilian writer/director Luca Guadagnino is among the leading lights of contemporary Italian cinema, the author of such stylish and starkly individualistic dramas as I Am Love and Call Me By Your Name, which won an Oscar last year. He takes risks, which don't always come off, but the results are always interesting: Suspiria is no exception.
It is, in one sense, a remake, of a moody 1977 Dario Argento horror film, whose star, Jessica Harper, makes a brief cameo here. It's Dakota Johnson (of 50 Shades fame, but let's not hold that against her) who heads up this production, playing Susie Bannon, a young American dancer who comes to West Berlin in the late 1970s to audition for a prestigious dance company. The Markos Company is run by a legendary former dancer, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), an elegant, stately female who'll accept nothing less than excellence. She thinks she's found it in Susie, who hails from an Ohio community of Mennonites and has no apparent experience but delivers an electrifying audition. She's accepted and moves into the company's old building. But meanwhile, one of the other dancers has gone missing, and it's not long before Susie suspects something is amiss. It's witchcraft, folks, and nasty things lurk in the basement.
For the most part, Suspiria is beautifully put together, wreathed in shadows, charged with looming dread. It sucks you in, and a series of darkly erotic dance sequences promise the unfolding of a truly special film. But it never materialises, and after an auspicious start, Suspiria descends into lurid Guignol. Miss Swinton plays several roles, including an elderly male psychiatrist, but that seems like a meaningless gimmick, and the story's underlying themes of unleashed feminine power and sexuality are only fitfully explored.
At times beautiful, at others grotesque, it's ultimately superficial.