At the end of Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts, Emma Watson speaks of how Harry Potter represents the power of storytelling and encompasses everything that is safe, good and kind. For the generation that grew up with Harry Potter, and for many more succeeding generations, this is certainly true. Perhaps this is why spin offs like Fantastic Beasts prove so successful with the audience even though the Fantastic Beasts franchise, according to many a critic, lacks the original magic of the series. But what it lacks in magic the franchise makes up in nostalgia and grandiosity: the cinematic universe of Fantastic Beasts, from the very first film, is opulent and darkly lavish. We left The Crimes of Grindelwald at the crucial juncture of Credence finding out his identity as a Dumbledore from Grindelwald and the phoenix soaring across the sky to land on his arm. The Secrets of Dumbledore begins where the events of The Crimes of Grindelwald ended: we meet Grindelwald and Dumbledore chatting in a muggle coffee shop with Grindelwald warning Dumbledore to stay out of his way.
The Secrets of Dumbledore opens with the theme of love: lingering stares, nostalgic memories shared, passions simmering beneath the surface between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. But this love is not pure or uncomplicated: it is a love born out of twisted ideas and wrapped ideals. Grindelwald will not let Dumbledore forget that their association led to the birth of his vision for a muggle free world and to reinforce that knowledge, there is the blood pact, a cruel talisman that Dumbledore carries around his hand. Jude Law playing Dumbledore and Mads Mikkelsen playing Grindelwald are excellent actors who make the emotions in their scenes together go up a notch and bring out the complexities of their relationship beautifully. When Theseus, Newt’s brother, asks Dumbledore what possessed him to make a blood pact with Grindelwald, Dumbledore’s answer is that it can be any one of the poisons of love, naivety or friendship. The Secrets of Dumbledore as a film navigates this beautiful yet poisonous terrain of friendship and love coupled with politics: the film’s background is the rise of political Fascism in Europe.
Newt Scamander is adorable as usual in his bumbling, awkward way but in this film Newt does not enjoy center stage. There are a host of other characters who share screen space: there is the resourceful Professor Lally Hicks, the mysterious Yusuf Kama, the ever entertaining Jackob Kowalski, the lovesick Bunty (Newt’s assistant who nurtures a soft spot for Newt). All of these characters are at their core kind and good who remain committed to foiling Grindelwald’s plan of taking over the world and oppressing the non-magic people. But their plan, as Newt says, is to have no plan. And it is here that the film falters a little: trying to tie too many threads together, walking the tightrope of love and politics makes Yates’s universe a bit tedious and scattered. Add to that the lack of a proper plan on the part of the characters to defeat Grindelwald ( which translates to the lack of a proper plot for the film) and The Secrets of Dumbledore does run the danger of driving away its loyal audiences. But what saves the film and the franchise is the echoing beauty of Rowling’s writing: every time Jacob cracks a joke, laughs hysterically or cracks us up, we see the hand of a master storyteller at play. The scenes between Lally and Jacob are beautiful, an ode to friendship that can be brave and courageous in the worst of times.
We have to agree with Lally when she says that Jacob is essential to defeating Grindelwald because he is a man who ‘won’t duck behind the counter’ when he sees a wrong deed taking place. Jacob is the heart of this film: funny, rambling yet essentially a kind and generous man who is madly in love with his old sweetheart, Queenie. The ageing Dumbledore told us in Harry Potter that love is the purest and oldest form of magic: it can withstand the greatest evil. In The Secrets of Dumbledore a young Dumbledore proves this again and again: he reminds his brother of his love for his son and how that love needs to be claimed. He is himself tortured by his love for Grindelwald but refuses to let that love manipulate his intentions or motivations. Interspersed with love in the film is politics: the two rarely mix well and in this film they mingle to create a simmering cauldron of fearsome terrains. The film takes us on a tour of 1930s Europe where we are met with increasing cries of support for Grindelwald and a continent that is fast surrendering to ‘what is easy’ and not fighting for ‘what is right’. Fascist politics rarely follows any rationale and this is what we witness in The Secrets of Dumbledore: Grindelwald woos the crowds with his rhetoric of anti-muggle speeches and nobody questions as to how a muggle free world is going to be better or in what way are muggles a threat to wizards.
Rowling understands the power of speeches, rhetoric, politics of purity and hate all too well. We see how Lally, Newt and Jacob are overpowered by the overwhelming support for Grindelwald in the German Ministry of Magic. We feel for Jacob as he watches Queenie walk past him to execute Grindelwald’s twisted orders. We weep with Dumbledore for the helpless Credence and the cruel way he has been manipulated by Grindelwald. Friendships and love need to be cherished; otherwise they can fester and kill. Credence symbolizes this all too beautifully: abandoned at birth by Aberforth (Dumbledore’s brother), hungry to belong, lonely and abused, Credence becomes an obscurious, suppressing his magic and identity which bursts out of him in stressful moments and can be threatening for him and others around him. Grindelwald feeds Credence’s resentment, his hate as all fascists do; he misuses Credence’s power and lures him into the dark world of his politics. It is to Credence’s credit that he recognizes Grindelwald for what he is and thwarts his plans at the end.
At the end, The Secrets of Dumbledore take us to Bhutan, a magically beautiful mountainous country where the election for the new Minister for Magic is to take place. Grindelwald has a clever plan of his own which Newt and his gang need to thwart to prevent a disaster. Both Newt and Grindelwald have a vitally important creature, a quillin, who has the power to choose a worthy leader. Credence stands up to Grindelwald and reveals the true nature of his creature and thus ultimately does the right thing. The film concludes with Grindelwald fleeing the scene and then we jump to the wedding day of Jacob and Queenie (who also ultimately sees the evil Grindelwald for what he is). The concluding scene is a hot bath in a warm cauldron of the central emotion in the film, love. Jacob and Queenie, Tina and Newt make us grateful for the existence of love even in the darkest of times. The Secrets of Dumbledore is not a masterfully crafted film; it is not even a very good film perhaps. But it is an entertaining and a love filled film that reminds us of the magic of a wonderful world, and that resonates with the message: “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if only one remembers to turn on the light”.