There’s always an outpouring of public opinion when an actor who has been accused of abuse—especially if it happened recently—is cast in a role. It was no different when it was revealed that Johnny Depp would still play Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts franchise, despite allegations of physical and psychological abuse from his ex-wife, Amber Heard.
Warner Bros., J.K. Rowling, and director David Yates defended the choice to keep Depp in the cast. Rowling even posted on her website, “Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.”
When Warner Bros. released their own statement supporting Depp, they cited only certain lines from Heard and Depp’s divorce statement. Heard criticized this move by posting the full divorce statement on Instagram, along with the caption, “For the record, this was our FULL joint statement. To pick&choose certain lines & quote them out of context, is not right. Women, stay strong,”
Heard’s rightful criticism of the Warner Bros. statement did not ease fans’ concerns about Depp’s involvement. Seeing the film last week confirmed my feelings: It was a huge mistake to keep Depp in the role of Grindelwald.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald suffers from a lot of problems—not just the problematic casting choice.
It struggles with pacing and character development. It keeps many of its characters in a frustrating holding pattern for the entire movie, to the point where I kept wondering if I was watching a soap opera like All My Children, rather than a fantasy epic (whose brother is he?!). It chooses not to use its most interesting characters in interesting ways, killing off Leta Lestrange before she’s given a chance to be complicated and not giving Newt nearly enough time with his magical beasts.
And, yes, it also suffers because of the choice to cast Depp as the titular Grindelwald. Look, I get it: Depp is well-known for playing unique characters with unusual appearances. Over the course of his career, he’s played both dark and darkly sympathetic well. Unfortunately for this movie, Grindelwald comes across as neither. He’s a villain who relies entirely on what other characters are saying about him to seem evil. While that worked well for Voldemort in the original series (there’s nothing scarier than being told you can’t even say someone’s name), it falls flat here. The cast keeps reminding us how evil Grindelwald is, but Depp’s acting is one-dimensional and, as some critics have pointed out, his costume design actually takes away from his character.
The experience of watching Depp play Grindelwald was sort of like when you’re in middle school and you finally get to see the bully you dislike most screw up publicly. During his performance, there was a pit in my stomach that I couldn’t shake, but that resulted more from his real-life domestic violence allegations than his performance as a literal magical villain. And that reaction is not great for a movie that wants me to fear its titular character for his fictional crimes.
The Crimes of Grindelwald uses Depp sparingly, so audiences don’t have to sit through too many of his diatribes about wanting to create a world where we can “love freely” and “live openly.” Maybe those lines were supposed to be a reference to his implied romantic past with Dumbledore, but the movie also suffers by not making the relationship between the two characters compelling. I wasn’t holding my breath for a duel-to-the-death between people who used to be deeply connected. Instead, I was wondering, “Did you guys even know each other beyond that one time you made a creepy blood pact?”
The two don’t have enough of a backstory (onscreen at least, which is what matters here—I can’t be emotionally moved by subtext and tweets about what was intended) to make the audience care about whether or not they fight each other. By the end of the movie, I wasn’t sure what Grindelwald’s motivations were. This is not because he’s a nuanced villain, but because it makes absolutely no sense to characterize him as potentially LGBTQ+—and then also show him as a fascist leader and wizard reminiscent of Hitler who wants to lead a Muggle genocide. Mind you, there is no explanation offered for how genocide fits into his claimed desire for a world where we can “live openly.”
Beyond that, the original Harry Potter series drew a lot of its strength from its moral core.
Instead of that beloved moral core, Fantastic Beasts gave me Johnny Depp playing a flat version of a villain who could have been morally grey in much more interesting ways. It gave me Queenie taking away her partner’s consent with a love spell, and ultimately joining Grindelwald’s side in hopes that, for some reason, he’d allow her to stay with a Muggle. What we really need in 2018 is the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore’s Army—not a cast of characters who spend almost an entire film doing nothing to stop a fascist leader rise to power.