I am not a true Harry Potter fan. I watch the films, and find myself enjoying them, with what little devotion that hasn’t been killed in me by my rabid Potterhead sister who regularly marathons all eight films and drags me on my summer days off to Harry Potter world. I read the books at a young age and, having a deeper interest in so many other fandoms, know a little about the extended Wizarding World through all the Tumblr posts, fanfic snippets and pithy memes that come my way online. So it was with an open, if somewhat detached, mind that I walked into the closest screening of Fantastic Beasts, confident that my socks would be ruffled, if not blown clean off my feet.
And… holy moly. What else is there to say?
The story itself is a fairly run-of-the-mill, fantastical adventure-type plot that we came to recognise and love from the first three Harry Potter films – the ‘fun and games’ years before Voldemort physically returns to plunge the whole world into terror. Watching Newt and Jacob romp around New York and play what is, essentially, a cosmic game of Pokemon Go is monstrously entertaining without straying into farce, with just enough magical mischief thrown into the mix to stop you forgetting what film you’re watching. I mean, I think the Niffler was my favourite member of that star-studded cast. He completely made the role his own.
But it’s what’s built around and within that story that makes the film what it is. There’s just enough crossover between this film and Harry Potter that die-hard fans of the franchise get rewarded with lots of little goodies (Dumbledore gets a name-check, as does a certain not-so-nice ancestor of Sirius Black) and Graves pulling out the sigil of the Hallows was a truly inspired moment. However, the film doesn’t make the same mistake the DC does by going so far overboard in this way that they alienate more casual viewers like myself. And all this world-building really goes a long way – just like with the Philosopher’s Stone, the filmmakers really excel themselves at crafting a whole new world and culture from the top down. It isn’t just Harry Potter set in New York; there’s a whole lot of thought going on and every detail is picked to perfection. Magic and polyjuice glamour of the Roaring Twenties’ New York, right down to the leather-clad MACUSA aurors and magical speakeasy. The way the magical execution chamber eerily resembles an American electric chair is the absolute icing on the cake; picture perfect is a phrase I feel that’s thrown around a bit too lightly these days, but honestly I don’t feel self-conscious using it here.
All this is carried of course by four leading men and women who, against all odds, carry the script and surpass expectations. Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander finally gives us the Hufflepuff hero we’ve been waiting for (sorry, Cedric), ratty, intellectual, introverted and manic at the same time. There’s a real air of Matt Smith’s Doctor Who about Newt in the way he talks and moves, an actor who was in fact considered for the role as well as Redmayne. And yet, just like the Eleventh Doctor, there’s an ambiguity about him, a sense that he isn’t telling the whole truth. Can you trust a man who carries an obscurus in his backpack? Even though some of his lies (like his Thunderbird) are well-intentioned, there’s a sense that he has hidden depths; luckily we’ve got another four films to explore them. Opposite him we have the plucky Tina Goldstein, whose affectionate, if not necessarily romantic relationship with Newt brings a certain Harry-Hermione vibe to proceedings, while the inexplicably-likeable and down-to-earth New Yorker, Jacob Kolawski, steals the show in my opinion as my favourite main character. His rapport with Redmayne is a simply beautiful thing to behold, and I sorely hope he’ll be going places in the future. Last but by no means least we have Tina’s sister Queenie, the rather ditsy legilimens who makes coffee at the MACUSA headquarters – in her first scene she, and her not-quite-relationship with Jacob struck me as the most nail-bitingly irritating thing to behold, but by the film’s end both had well and truly won me over. While she’s no proto-feminist arse-kicker like Hermione Granger or even her own sister (she even remarks, while cooking, that Tina was always the career girl in the family), the way she uses courage and wiles to help her friends escape execution was an amazing sequence to behold. I actually sincerely hope we’ll see a bit more Queenawski in the future. She, as well as all four of the leads to the extent, embody the real Harry Potter message of ordinary, seemingly insignificant people finding it within themselves to make a real difference. And it really works.
The characters played against them are just as good. The political subtext of the magic-hating Second Salem, in this age of Trump and the alt-right, carry a very unsubtle political subtext for today’s world, and yet it feels believable. Mary-Lou Barebone may be wide-eyed and fanatical enough to come across as pantomime, but introducing Langdon Shaw in the way it does is a simple stroke of genius – establishing him as the one remotely likeable character in his family only to give him a legitimate anti-wizard grievance with his brother’s murder. I can see him becoming a real force to be reckoned with later down the line, helped no end by the fact that, as villains go, you can’t help but feel for him. But it is Colin Farrell’s Graves who has to take the cake for villainy here; his bitter charisma and the way he emotionally manipulates everyone around him to get what he wants really set him up as a big player…
Until that reveal. I mean, it was undeniably a clever move to keep Grindelwald offstage until the end, and build up his fearful reputation to establish him as the big daddy of wizarding threat that he is, but part of me almost wishes Graves had been another character altogether, such was his onscreen presence. Of course, Grindelwald is a name well-known to hard-core Potterheads and having him crop up in 1920s America certainly wets one’s whistle for the appearance of his former friend and eventual killer Albus Dumbledore – an idea that becomes especially interesting when we remember that, if we believe Deathly Hallows, the young Dumbledore is far less wise, and far more dangerous, than the kindly old headmaster we’ve come to love. So many seeds planted, yet to reap.
And then there’s Credence.
I could talk about Credence alone for pages and pages – undeniably the standout performance of the film, the tragedy of his story and his relationship with Graves is brought so beautifully, and horrifically, to life. The moment he hands his belt over to Mary Lou and follows her upstairs, we know instantly how abusive and toxic their relationship is. In spite of all the Newt and Jacob frolicking, I genuinely found those creepy scenes in the orphanage with him and Modesty to be my favourite moments of the film, as we glimpse deeper into his tormented history and realise just how messed up he truly is. And that’s before his obscurus powers are revealed. The obscurus’s first attack is shot purely for terror but when we know what’s behind it, the film plays it for equal parts horror and tragedy. This is contrasted beautifully with Newt and Tina’s attempts to reach out to him, and the brutal coda – when the aurors kill him out of nothing more than fear, really hammers home the bleakness and paranoia that America’s wizarding world must feel right now.
The ending itself gives us little in the way of definitive answers, and this early into the franchise I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Plot threads abound are left dangling – from the obvious hint of Credence’s survival and Grindelwald’s greater role to play in the saga as a whole – but we are given a sense of closure in other areas. Watching Newt scamper back up the gangway of the ship that brought him here reminds us that this is simply the first of five stories, and not one story stretched into five parts, and as for Jacob… well, his ending was quite profound to say the least, and while bittersweet, certainly opens up the next few films for wider possibilities. Will he regain his memories? Will he encounter the Wizarding World again? His final scene with Queenie, surrounded by baked simulacra of the magical creatures he encounters on his adventure, is delightfully ambiguous without crossing the line into cliché, and gives the narrative more potential arcs to play with further down the line.
I’ve got to hand it to you, Rowling. Finally, a Hufflepuff we can believe in.