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Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

"The result, put a spell on me"

★★★★ - LONDON EVENING STANDARD

- Rowling’s radical experiment is risky but rousing - 

The Harry Potter writer seems like she’s out to reinvent Bob Fosse’s Cabaret in this third instalment, where Mads Mikkelsen steps into Johnny Depp’s previous role.

He has a beard, but doesn’t need one. Iconic wizard Albus Dumbledore is out and proud in the third of the Harry Potter prequels, a glossy “for all the family” blockbuster that’s actually not that kid-friendly and could well kill - or make - the franchise.

The first two instalments in the series felt like overblown footnotes. However, divisive author JK Rowling (responsible, as ever, for the plot and co-writer of the script) seems to have found a new sense of purpose. Warners want her to serve up whimsical critters and public-school wand-wavers. She’s out to reinvent Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. The result, though a flawed hybrid, put a spell on me. When it was first announced this would be a five-part series, I thought “Five Fantastic Beast films? There shouldn’t even be one”. Now I’d love to see a FB4.

FB3 is set in the 1930s and has fun with a wizardy-version of gloomy-doomy Berlin, where Dumbledore (Jude Law) has sent a raggle-taggle team of do-gooders, including diffident magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and down-to-earth New York baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), in the hopes of halting the rise of charismatic Muggle-hater Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen; a welcome replacement for Johnny Depp). Gellert has found friends in high places and, just in time for an election, is promoting himself as the voice of the people. Will a Qilin - a Bambi-like unicorn with a famed ability to see through lies - help or hinder Gellert’s wicked plans?

What ensues is both stark and sensual, with Law especially magnificent (except when trying to sound... Irish? West Country? His accent is neither fish nor fowl and should have been strangled at birth). Albus has been intoxicated since his youth by Gellert. We discover that they almost eloped. And we’re invited to feel the heat that still exists between the two men. Albus closes his eyes, giddy with anticipation, at the mere thought of his ex-lover.

Even in 2022, this feels revolutionary. A row between Albus and Gellert is reminiscent of heated debates in the X-Men series between Magneto and Professor X (to kill or be kind to beastly humans; that’s always the question). But it’s only anti-hero Magneto who’s coded as queer. Noble Professor X? He’s straight. Meanwhile, in last year’s Disney’s superhero epic Eternals, we were introduced to Phastos, who was lovely and part of a same-sex marriage, but hardly central to the action. In FB3, by contrast, the top goodie is gay. Woohoo!

There are other surprises, which I’m duty bound not to reveal. Suffice to say, the ones that concern Grindelwald’s latest recruit, troubled teen Credence (Ezra Miller), just about make sense in terms of timelines, but we still don’t know why the “dirty secret” of his existence wasn’t dug up by whistle-blower Rita Skeeter in the HP movies.

Credence doesn’t have a whole lot of lines, but Miller gives great face and does something memorable with phoenix ash. Also strong, and a great deal more silent, is Hebe Beardsall as Dumbledore’s doomed sister Ariana, whose liquid portrait dominates several emotional scenes. True story: my daughter, for her sixth birthday, dressed up as Ariana Dumbledore. In my family we love this fragile but resilient character. Between them, Rowling and director David Yates ensure Ariana’s not the mad woman in the attic, she’s the mad girl in the sitting-room, and it’s grand to see her centre stage.

As for Kowalski, Rowling’s answer to Bilbo Baggins, he’s improved with age and Fogler has grown into the role. Jacob is frequently hilarious and touching and the same goes for Newt’s lovelorn, non-glamorous assistant, Bunty (Rowling-look-a-like Victoria Yeates; very cool).

You feel for Redmayne, who swivels his hips with style in a jaunty set-piece, but, as an actor, is hardly stretched. He’s just there to be cosily boyish. That said, fans of this wily performer shouldn’t worry. He’s just finished playing the decadent and crazed Emcee in an acclaimed production of Cabaret at The Kit Kat Club. He’s suppressing his dark side in The Secrets of Dumbledore for the greater good.

One last thing. There were rumours Katherine Waterston, who publicly criticised Rowling for her stance on trans issues, had been purged from the series. Not true. Waterston’s Tina Goldstein, the working-class Jewish-American witch who Newt adores, is crucial to the climax.

Secrets of Dumbledore shows an impressive willingness to mess with the HP formula (and formulas in general). It’s a work in progress and within a whisker of being fantastic. Note to Warners: don’t panic. There may be dark days ahead, in terms of box office receipts. But Rowling’s got this and should be allowed to see her wild experiment through to the end.

- Charlotte O'Sullivan, LONDON EVENING STANDARD

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is now playing at Light House Cinema!

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