“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” has generated, in the weeks leading up to its release, if not exactly interest, then a kind of curiosity.
This is a franchise that has survived, by the skin of its teeth, despite a largely apathetic critical and commercial response and several scandals ranging from author J.K. Rowling’s controversial comments about sex and gender to one-time costar Johnny Depp’s alleged spousal abuse, that have potentially dinged the franchise irrevocably. Against all odds, the third film is here. And considering the title of the film — which refers to some hidden mysteries in the past of Hogwarts headmaster and future Harry Potter mentor Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) — there might be one question looming over this latest “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” film: just how gay is it?
Following the publication of the final “Harry Potter” novel, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” in 2007, Rowling revealed that Dumbledore was gay and that his prior relationship with famed evil wizard Grindelwald (now played by Mads Mikkelsen), was indeed romantic. Why she didn’t, you know, put this in the books and allow for little queer kids around the world to identify with a part of their franchise, is a topic of discussion for another time. The point is that, canonically, that part of Dumbledore’s history was now revealed. The question remained: would it ever get properly explored?
Enter: “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
This new franchise, ostensibly a prequel series and based on an arcane bit of Potter lore (also written by Rowling), was set decades before Harry Potter left the cupboard under the stairs to attend Hogwarts. And while, at least initially, it was insinuated that these new films would exist as a standalone series set in adjacent sectors of the Wizarding World, by the second movie (and after the tepid response to the first installment), Hogwarts, Dumbledore, and all of the stuff was very much at the forefront of “Fantastic Beasts.” Given the new emphasis on Dumbledore and his past, would they actually dig into his relationship with Grindelwald?
The first film to feature Dumbledore and Grindelwald (“The Crimes of Grindelwald”) sidesteps this almost entirely, thanks largely to that film’s manic pacing and Depp’s over-the-top performance that, amongst other things, makes it virtually impossible to imagine him in a caring relationship with anyone, much less a foxy, wizardly Jude Law. But now, two movies in and with a much more sympathetic Grindelwald, they finally can properly explore Dumbledore’s romantic entanglement with a very mad man.
The resulting film is perhaps gayer than you were expecting, but not nearly as gay as it should be. (And, as has already been reported, the offending material, some six seconds of it, have already been snipped out of the film for exhibition overseas.)
The following contains mild spoilers for “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.”
“The Secrets of Dumbledore” opens with Dumbledore in a café. He is soon joined by Grindelwald. They speak of Grindelwald’s plans for a mass extermination of Muggles (humans). Dumbledore disagrees. But wait, you did agree, not too long ago, Grindelwald points out. But that was when Dumbledore was in love with Grindelwald. Times change. People change. Fall out of love. Lose their genocidal delusions of grandeur. Still, Grindelwald will kill them all. The scene is revealed to be a dream sequence. But it’s based on real memories and the ghostly vestiges of a real relationship gone by.
It’s startling that it’s the first scene in the movie and it’s so emotionally honest about how relationships can fracture and how past trauma can still linger, all these years later. (There’s a physical manifestation of this shared bond in a tightening locket that Dumbledore keeps wrapped around his wrist that forbids him from acting against Grindelwald.) And that’s about as emotionally naked (and gay) as the movie gets.
There are a couple more passing references to their relationship sprinkled throughout the very long film. But nothing that is given the proper investigation or sensitivity that it should. And, of course, there is never any flashback, taking us back even further, to when Dumbledore and Grindelwald were happy. A same-sex smooch would be too much for this Wizarding World. At least for now.
With two more movies promised (threatened?) on the way, there is a chance that we will get a more nuanced look at Grindelwald and Dumbledore. But considering the squeamishness from foreign markets, this might be as in-depth as we ever get on the franchise’s most interesting and potentially-rich romance.