NOTE: In his recent review of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald for FilmFisher, Robert Brown concurred with the largely negative reception the film has received. Upon hearing that I enjoyed it, he challenged me to write an essay explaining myself. I do not quite like the movie enough to mount an impassioned or thorough defense, but was sufficiently compelled by it to accept Robert’s challenge and offer a few words on its more intriguing aspects.
Around the time of The Crimes of Grindelwald’s release, J.K. Rowling was snidely accused in various corners of the internet of “going full George Lucas.” This was intended as a criticism, undoubtedly, but to my ears, such a claim sounds like the highest of compliments. Hollywood would be better off if more filmmakers were “going full George Lucas” today, and when I say that The Crimes of Grindelwald is almost the Attack of the Clones of the Harry Potter franchise, I mean it as a good thing.
Initially, comparing the two may sound like a stretch, so let us review the evidence. Both begin with a sequence set in a cloudy art deco city, involving an aerial craft and a decoy. Both have key plots involving a forbidden love affair, set against the backdrop of an impending war, and conclude in a circular auditorium where the representatives of authority are manipulated by the rebels into making the first move in said war. Finally, both feature a troubled young man with powerful natural talent, perhaps the subject of a prophecy, searching for an absent mother – and in both cases, the villain’s machinations aim at winning the loyalty of this young man.
These superficial similarities make for a fun bit of trivia to trot out, but the parallels run deeper. Lucas and Rowling are both interested in chiastic structures, and much has been made of the “ring composition” of the Harry Potter books and Star Wars films. To quickly review: a chiasm splits a story into a pair of mirrored or inverted halves. The narrative begins with one idea, circles back to that idea in the end, and turns on a pivot in the center or midpoint. Grindelwald follows this structure almost obsessively, but a quick overview with a few notable examples will suffice for our purposes:
A – Grindelwald, who was previously chained, is released and doubled in a surprise reveal. Grindelwald seduces a wizard (Abernathy) to his cause. Winged creatures (thestrals) are present. The blood pact between Dumbledore and Grindelwald is hinted at.
B – Leta’s first appearance. Newt tells Theseus that he will not choose a side. Theseus embraces Newt.
C – Tina descends into an underworld through a passage hidden beneath a statue. In a circular space, Nagini gives a performance of sorts, which ends in abrupt violence and the release of fiery creatures.
D – Queenie visits the French Ministry of Magic. Grindelwald’s followers, one of whom is disguised by Polyjuice Potion, remove the Lestrange family tree.
E – At Hogwarts, Dumbledore talks to Theseus. Leta has a flashback. Dumbledore talks to Leta.
D’ – Newt (disguised by Polyjuice Potion) and Tina visit the French Ministry of Magic and discover that the Lestrange family tree has been removed.
C’ – Tina and others enter an underworld through a passage hidden by a statue. In a circular space, Grindelwald gives a performance of sorts, which ends in abrupt violence and the release of a fiery creature.
B’ – Leta’s final appearance. Newt tells Theseus that he has chosen a side. Newt embraces Theseus.
A’ – Dumbledore, who was previously chained, is released and doubled in a surprise reveal. Grindelwald seduces a wizard (Credence) to his cause. A winged creature (phoenix) is present. The blood pact between Dumbledore and Grindelwald is revealed.
Uncovering this structural logic makes the film’s seemingly muddled plotting comprehensible and also illuminates crucial themes and motifs. Beginning and ending are always reliable starting points when unriddling a chiasm, and here we find an important recurring device: doubling. The main plot, concerning Grindelwald’s titular Crimes, his escape and rise to power, starts off with a switch of doubles: Grindelwald and his decoy, Abernathy. Another main plot, the mystery of Credence’s identity, concludes with the revelation that he is a long-lost double of Dumbledore. The primary love subplot, concerning the romance between Newt and Tina, is set in motion by a confusion of duplicates as well: a newspaper misreports that Newt is engaged to Leta when she is in fact engaged to his double, Auror brother Theseus. (The spurned Tina, naturally, starts seeing an Auror named Achilles, whose profession and mythological name bring us back around to Theseus.)
Indeed, trying to track the film’s sheer proliferation of pairs is enough to make one’s head spin. Newt and Theseus are both paired romantically with Leta, who is herself paired with a half-brother, Yusuf – one of two assassins trying to kill Credence. Newt is also paired romantically with Tina, who is mirrored by sister Queenie, who is romantically paired with Jacob, who spends most of the film paired with his friend Newt. Dumbledore and Grindelwald are also paired romantically, and though they are never physically onscreen together, this set of doubles is arguably afforded the greatest structural significance: it is emphasized in the beginning, the end, and at the midpoint. In a chiasm, this is an indication of central importance; and of course, in a chiasm, everything of importance happens twice. (Elsewhere, the closing credits split the actors’ faces into halves and pair them with each other, and the French Ministry of Magic is guarded by magical creatures that duplicate when attacked and look like Siamese cats. At this point, one wonders if it is coincidence that these animals are associated in popular culture with the “Siamese Twins” song from Lady and the Tramp.)
All this clues us in to the duality on the film’s mind. In the first Fantastic Beasts, we learned that the Obscurus which gives Credence his power is an expression of a wizard’s repressed magic – essentially a Jungian shadow (Credence’s dark side, in Star Wars parlance). Here, Dumbledore tells Newt early on that the Obscurus is a “dark twin,” and while Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them used the Obscurus as a metaphor to offer a reductive (and frankly, rather boring) condemnation of puritanical suppression, The Crimes of Grindelwald pursues the theme further, into far more interesting and complicated territory.
Dumbledore still cautions the authoritarian Ministry that their “policies of suppression” are pushing their allies to join Grindelwald, but it also becomes clear that simply letting repressed passions run wild is no solution to the problem. Newt initially rejects the idea of joining the Ministry, a “blinkered” institution that fears what it cannot understand, and Dumbledore jostles with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, so the establishment is not suddenly something to be uncritically praised. Nevertheless, notice that it is the villainous Grindelwald whose rhetoric demands absolute freedom from authority. “We only want freedom: freedom to be ourselves,” he claims, veiling his tyrannical agenda with appeals to individualism (“Only here shall you know yourself”) and liberalism (“The old ways serve us no longer… you crave something new”). Queenie, who wants to marry non-magical Jacob in spite of the laws forbidding their union (“They’re very progressive here,” she tells him), is seduced to Grindelwald’s cause by the promise of being “Free to live openly… to love freely.” Indeed, The Crimes of Grindelwald leans surprisingly conservative: while Queenie’s decision to join Grindelwald is represented as a tragic mistake, Newt’s declaration of loyalty to the Ministry, represented by stubborn Theseus, is framed as a heroic choice. The “free love” promised by Grindelwald proves destructive; the monster he unleashes must be circumscribed and confined. And is it a coincidence that so much of the film takes place in Paris, the “city of love”? The Harry Potter books and films were Rowling’s ode to the power of love; here she seems to intuit the problems that result when Eros is enthroned above all other gods. Queenie’s insistence on being allowed to marry whoever she wants separates her from those who truly care for her, and innocents are dying because of Dumbledore’s inability to fight his lover, Grindelwald.
When Eros runs amok, it is the children who suffer. Leta and Yusuf’s lives are haunted by the horrific, family-destroying actions of their lustful father, and the orphaned Credence laments, “I’m tired of living with no name and no history.” To call The Crimes of Grindelwald a critique of the sexual revolution would, perhaps, be a stretch; but it is not difficult to discern the film’s marked pro-life leanings. How else to account for the almost gratuitous amount of attention paid to an early scene in which Grindelwald and followers murder a baby? Nor is this an isolated incident. I have already called attention to the switches of duplicates (Grindelwald and his decoy, Newt’s misreported engagement) that begin the story, but the most important one occurs when a young Leta swaps her baby brother for another, inadvertently leading to his death by drowning. This event is foreshadowed once at the film’s midpoint and rehearsed again near its conclusion, which makes for three infanticides in one movie – certainly enough to raise an eyebrow (or two).
The centerpiece of the film’s chiastic structure – and therefore perhaps its most important scene – is a class during which Leta’s Boggart, a creature that takes the shape of whatever its victim fears most, assumes the form of her drowning infant brother, wrapped in billowing white sheets. The visual pointedly recalls a sperm or fetus, and Leta’s consigning of the child to the ocean is symbolically significant, for bodies of water represent the unconscious. Leta’s repressed guilt, like Credence’s “dark twin” before it, is emblematic of the blindness that permeates the film. Consider, for instance, the prophecies no one is able to interpret correctly (“poetry, not proof,” according to Tina), or the recurring focus on eyes: Grindelwald’s magic eye, Yusuf’s infected ones, or Tina’s, which Newt compares to those of a salamander: with a “remarkable effect” like “fire in deep water.” The emphasis on vision, or lack thereof, highlights the fact that the characters in The Crimes of Grindelwald are always attempting either to see hidden truths or keep them concealed. Yates offers us distorted POV shots when Jacob is under Queenie’s love spell, Grindelwald justifies his murderous schemes with a vision of the future (using a hookah shaped like a skull, perhaps offered to Depp in lieu of zany makeup or a weird hat), and the “blinkered” Ministry, vainly laboring to preserve the status quo, attempts to suppress him. Unsurprisingly, it is Dumbledore who lays out the proper middle course between these two impulses. He urges Leta to confess her guilt, and by doing so, she proves to be the film’s true heroine, finally revealing what has been repressed, unriddling the central mystery without denying the darkness inside her or giving into it. By uncovering her sin, she receives a kind of absolution and is ultimately able to find a measure of redemption. Her last words, again holding two extremes in tension, are good ones: “I love you.”