Director: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler, Ezra Miller, Colin Farrell & Carmen Ejogo
I itch to go into detailed analysis of how the imagery and thematic material of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – the new film from the Harry Potter world – relates to, echoes, and builds upon the original films and books. However, I do not want to spoil the plot and the surprises in store. I will therefore attempt to communicate my enthusiasm for the film while skating around precisely what it is that I am enthusiastic for.
Fantastic Beasts is directed by David Yates and stars Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, Katherine Waterston as Porpentina Goldstein (Tina, or Teenie), Alison Sudol as Queenie Goldstein, Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski, Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone, Colin Farrell as Percival Graves, and Carmen Ejogo as Seraphina Picquery. The film is set in New York, 1926. Gellert Grindelwald, the dark wizard who pre-dates the rise of Lord Voldemort, is in hiding. Both Voldemort and Grindelwald are European evils whose ascensions also threaten the wider world. In New York, the magical community is dealing with a resurgence of anti-magic fervour amongst no-majs (their word for muggles) – puritanical self-titled New-Salemers, who insist upon the existence and essential badness of magic. The MACUSA (the wizarding world’s Congress) have tightened already harsh restrictions on witch/no-maj fraternisation under the Statute of Secrecy. The city is on high-alert.
From the first, the viewer is presented with themes of migration and racial difference, which key in to the current western political anxiety circulating around the perceived refugee ‘threat’. Newt comes the way of the foreigner to New York; by boat and through Ellis Island. His magical creatures, disguised through customs and viewed by American magical folk as ‘dangerous’, connote fears of volatile tendencies in migrants and strangers; of the unknowable beasts inside. Though set in the period of Hitler’s rise in Germany (Hitler is arguably figured in the text through Grindelwald’s character), Fantastic Beasts speaks directly to the specific racial and cultural anxieties of our time – the hostility which typifies foreign policy, and the dereliction of international duty by those countries best positioned to provide humanitarian support. It seems alarmingly prescient, actually, given the release date (just after Donald Trump’s became President-Elect of the U.S.).
The film also alludes to concerns of media control and its impact upon government. Americanised right-wing fascism – not in the form of an angry orange man, but that of respected, solipsistic, traditional governance – is addressed. Attitudes underpinned by a fear of the ‘Other’ – from Islamophobia, to segregationism, to marriage rights – are addressed in the film, and rendered complexly. Perhaps most significantly is that these attitudes are not exclusive to just one ‘side’ – but can be found in both the non-magical community as well as the magical community, which is shown to be deeply hierarchical and prejudiced.
Forced underground by historical hatred of their kind, their oppression has lead them to project a similar hatred amongst their own different racial and classed communities. When asked by Tina what he knows of the magical people of the U.S., Newt says that he views their laws around complete segregation (no love, no marriage, no friendships) of the magical and non-magical as incredibly regressive. He also sees their stance on magical beasts (as risks which much be controlled and, in many cases, exterminated) as reprehensible. This is his own personal mission; he is a conservationist. I have a lot of thoughts about Newt’s representation as a reformed colonialist, but I haven’t the time or space to go into it. I’ve already said much more than I intended, so you think about it yourself, and message me if you have any ideas. Moving on.
The actual magic in this film is so sophisticated and delicate. It’s immensely beautiful; and I think that (developments in our muggle filmic technology aside) is the benefit of having adult protagonists. Magic is so much a part of their lifestyle, they use it in incredibly mundane ways; ironing and other domesticities, for example. These mundanities are visually charming, and show consideration of details. There is a particularly special thing to do with umbrellas (you’ll know it when you see it) – my sister and I looked happily at each other from across our free media screening popcorn when it happened and saluted with our (media-gift) Newt wands.*
The cast is also a winning one. Eddie Redmayne’s awkward scientist is adorable and necessary as an English envoy in an American version of such an English story. Alongside Cumberbatch, he’s the most English person in Hollywood, so: perfect choice. I also like the scoliosis-inflected canter he adopts for this role. Katherine Waterston seems an incredibly New Yorkian counterpoise to Redmayne, and her wonderful Porpentina – a competent and clever ex-Auror – demonstrates Rowling’s (who was behind screeplay) great ability to write complex portrayals of confident women undermined by the institutions they inhabit. Maybe next time she’ll even make one of them the star (we can dream). Dan Fogler’s Kowalski, a no-maj veteran struggling in a deadening, draining factory job, is the most compelling character on screen. I felt deeply sad when he was refused the business loan he needed to open his dream bakery.
I wish to note two things that I would be remiss to forget before finishing. Firstly, the H.P. fandom believed that this film would be linked to Rowling’s controversial Pottermore series, The History of Magic in North America. The story that has been viewed as particularly offensive regarding the origins of the U.S. magical school Ilvermorny (that witch/wizard characters of Fantastic Beasts excluding Newt attended) in that it obscured the historic slaughter and ongoing oppression of Native American communities. For an in depth discussion of the story’s problematic aspects, start here and then research further. As to how these issues carry over to the film? Well, there are no obvious Native American actors or characters – which is unfortunate. Yet, while I wish that there could be more Native American people involved (from cast, to crew, to consultants from relevant communities), and that there could’ve been plot lines that dealt sophisticatedly with that history, I really don’t credit Rowling and Yates with the ability to pull that off. Though Fantastic Beasts may be a work of fiction, it self-consciously sets up a dialogue with the ‘real world’ – which has meant that problems arise when it comes which parts of the ‘real’ it has chosen to engage with.
Lastly, you may know (If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you care enough about the Harry Potter franchise to make this inevitable) that Johnny Depp has been cast as Grindelwald: a very important character in the Harry Potter world, and to become so later in this series. I have a few words to describe Depp: self-parodying, washed-up, dull. I wish so much that they had not cast him in this role. I find him an unimaginative actor with apparently only one performance in him, but, more importantly I believe that ignoring his personal transgressions and potential crimes, condones domestic violence and props up desperate, fading men. I find the hiring of him to be grotesque, and the knowledge of it dampened my experience of this beautifully collated film.
Review by Pema Monaghan