By Michael O'Sullivan
The latest instalment in the “Fantastic Beasts” series of movie prequels based on characters from the Harry Potter universe – the third of five planned films – involves a bit of a feint, in more ways than one.
Although subtitled “The Secrets of Dumbledore”, the movie is only nominally about Dumbledore family secrets: not just those involving the great wizard Albus Dumbledore (Law) in the years before he became headmaster of Hogwarts, but those concerning other branches of his family tree.
To be sure, the film does open with Albus having a genteel tea with his unlikely paramour, evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Mikkelsen, replacing Johnny Depp).
As a villain, Grindelwald is less, er, villainous than Ralph Fiennes’s Voldemort was, but he's still nasty, and Mikkelsen brings a distinctive air of the psychopath to his creepy portrayal.
But their romance – which includes a blood oath whereby neither man can attack the other – is no secret by now.
Nor is the fact of their falling out, over Dumbledore's disagreement with Grindelwald's plan to, as the latter puts it, "burn down" the world of non-magical Muggles (whom he dismisses as foul-smelling “animals”).
The real skeleton in the Dumbledore closet, so to speak, is something quite apart from the character's sexuality, and was alluded to at the end of the last film. Involving a character with the Dickensian name of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), it holds some mystery yet, for much of this overlong film.
These plot points involving human relationships are fascinating.
They are, in fact, the most fascinating aspects of Secrets, which was written by JK Rowling and Potter veteran Steve Kloves, reuniting with director David Yates for his seventh film in the beloved fantasy franchise.
But they are not the main engine that drives the plot here. Rather, that driver of narrative is an exotic animal – part dragon and part, I don't know, unicorn? – called a qilin (and pronounced “chillin”).
What would you expect from a series called “Fantastic Beasts”?
After the tea prologue, the film jumps to a scene with its hero, magizoologist Newt Scamander (Redmayne), trying to save an orphaned baby qilin (more on the significance of this later).
It may be a bit of a disappointment for adult fans, especially after instalment two, “The Crimes of Grindelwald”, which focused intensely on some deliciously dark human doings, and less on the (admittedly very exotic) critters, all of which, though nicely rendered via CGI, seem geared toward children.
The current story, in its broadest contours, does centre on human affairs: specifically, an election.
More specifically, 1932's three-way contest for the office of supreme mugwump, or leader of the International Confederation of Wizards, featuring candidates Vicência Santos (Maria Fernanda Cândido), Liu Tao (David Wong) and – wait for it – Gellert Grindelwald. (The pending criminal charges against him, alluded to in the title of the previous film, get dropped early in “Secrets”.)
This being the wizarding world, the election involves acclamation not by anything so pedestrian as the popular vote, but by the approval of the qilin, which has the magical ability to sense a man or woman of honour and good character.
That doesn't mean the vote can't be rigged. This little bit of topicality is a nice dig at recent events.
Exactly how the election is rigged – and unrigged – is best left unsaid, but it does involve a sort of sprawling game of three-card monte, conducted by Newt and incorporating suitcases, some empty and some not, over the streets and alleyways of a mountain village in Bhutan.
Newt is joined in the con by family and friends, both old and new, magical and Muggle: his brother Theseus (Callum Turner); his assistant Bunty (Victoria Yeates); the baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler); charms professor Eulalie "Lally" Hicks (Jessica Williams); and Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), whose sister Leta Lestrange was killed by Grindelwald in the last film.
It’s a modest and not especially clever gambit, and the story seems to peter out with a disappointing whimper, rather than with a bang.
Potter fans (guilty as charged) will grade Secrets on a curve, despite its weaknesses.
It may not be the most spellbinding of the prequels so far, but it does advance this saga in an entertaining, if less than fantastic way.