Prequels can be a tricky business, as George Lucas would likely tell you. But with Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, J.K. Rowling – the creator, of course, of the Harry Potter series – has taken a sensible, measured approach to the format, expanding her narrative universe instead of plundering it. There are no recurring characters (yet) from the Harry Potter films, and the time gap between this new installment and the last in the prior series (five years) offers appropriate breathing room and respect. The story and set-up is new, and feels essentially fresh. For fans, however, there are references aplenty, and tonally, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them fits very much within the Harry Potter universe, aided immeasurably by the sure hand of director, David Yates, who helmed the last clutch of installments in the original series.
With a major flourish, the film moves the action in both time and space, setting up its exciting new world in 1920s America. Here we meet Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, a British wizard (and a Hogwarts graduate) and field researcher in magical creatures who becomes caught up in a major power struggle amongst America’s magical elite, which threatens the uneasy relationship between the wizarding world and the far more prosaic one of the non-magical. When his creatures are blamed for a number of mysterious, deadly occurrences, the stumbling, uncertain Newt is slowly revealed to be a hero of the most unconventional kind.
It’s here that Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is at its most successful. Eddie Redmayne is wonderfully sweet, eccentric, and charming as Newt, and as Harry had Hermione and Ron, so this new wizard is gifted with a terrific crew of sidekicks. Katherine Waterston is a delight as Porpentina Goldstein (a lowly worker at The Magical Congress Of The United States Of America who crosses paths with Newt and becomes involved in the adventure), but the scene stealing largely comes courtesy of Alison Sudol (as Porpentina breathy, sexy, proto-Marilyn Monroe sister, Queenie) and Dan Fogler (as big hearted baker, Jacob Kowalski, a muggle – or to use the American parlance, No-Maj – whose eyes are amusingly opened to the greater world around him). They’re an entertaining, instantly loveable gaggle of misfits, and they effectively ground the film as now-all-too-familiar CGI villainous orbs (or something) blast and blur their way across the screen.
This brand of CGI destruction plagues most blockbusters now (as does slightly muddled storytelling), and Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is no exception. There is, however, more than enough to counter-balance this undeniable sense of messiness. The cast of largely British actors (ironic considering that the American setting would have finally allowed Hollywood’s stars to rumble wholeheartedly into J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world) is strong, with Colin Farrell menacing as a top-tier wizard and Samantha Morton terrifying as a magic-hating political mobiliser. Newt’s monsters, meanwhile, are kooky and craftily imagined. And though much of the plot feels like foundation-laying for the franchise to follow, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is rich with ideas and imagination, adding ingeniously to the Harry Potter mythos rather than taking away from it.
Morgan is the feature-length debut of none other than Ridley Scott’s son, Luke Scott – who is presumably sick of living in that shadow and wants to forge a career all his own. And what better way than by making a film in the genre for which your father is practically a god? Having quite a lot to live up to, the young padawan does a damn decent job for his first time at the helm, holding his own against Seth M. Owen’s largely vanilla script. It’s a shame really, because the premise is actually kind of cool.
A corporate troubleshooter (Kate Mara) is sent to a remote, top-secret location, where she is to investigate and evaluate a terrifying accident. She learns that the event was triggered by the subject of the experiment, Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy), who presents a mystery of both infinite promise and incalculable danger.
Owen’s script is passable but lazy. The plot twists are painfully obvious, and the cast clearly labours to try and find something to grab hold of. Kate Mara does her best and is measured in her use of what little she has to work with. Likewise, Anya Taylor-Joy is sensational as the cold and mechanical Morgan, but much like Mara, she’s given beer and asked to pretend that it’s champagne.
Maybe a more seasoned director would have known how to better manoeuvre the writing and maybe even make some bolder, riskier decisions. But all things considered, Morgan is a vaguely rousing, semi-original sci-fi action flick that succeeds in at least keeping your attention for 92 minutes. Sure, it lacks substance, but it’s big, loud and thrilling enough to be worth it.
The title of British director Ken Loach’s fiftieth film is a kind of declaration on behalf of the oppressed against the state. It is part of the film’s accusation that the poor are being punished essentially for being poor. This is not a situation that any civilised society could be proud of, and yet it is the daily reality for those in poverty. Tellingly, the protagonist of this searing drama grafftis the wall of the labour exchange (aka Centrelink) to a round of spontaneous applause from the public.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First, more context: Ken Loach more or less came out of retirement (aged 79) to make this film, and he collaborated once again with his friend and screenwriter, Paul Laverty. Both Loach and Laverty have some legal background, and their films (which Carla’s Song, My Name Is Joe, Bread And Roses, Sweet Sixteen, Ae Fond Kiss, and The Wind That Shakes The Barley) have a sense of clear sighted logic that cuts right to the centre of the argument. Loach and Laverty are both committed socialists, and they are able to show that ordinary lives are enmeshed in unfair rules set up to keep the system from changing. All this could sound preachy, but the genius here is that these are engaging human stories first and foremost. That is why Loach has been invited to exhibit at The Cannes Film Festival a record number of times, and also why this latest indelible offering has just won the Palme D’Or.
Loach gets a sympathetic performance from Dave Jones as the eponymous lead. Daniel is 59. He is a widower and a carpenter, and he has worked all his life. At the beginning of the story, we learn that his doctors have advised him to give up work to recover from a heart attack. This would be fine if he could get temporary benefits from the state, but that is where the nightmare of forms and robotic bureaucrats’ refusals begins. In the dole office, he meets a younger single mum called Katie (Hayley Squires) who, along with her two young children, is trapped in the same nightmare. Daniel strikes up a friendship with them and goes on to help them in any way that he can. There is a lot more to this than the skeleton would suggest. It is an absorbing journey, and includes many scenes which are heart wrenching and shocking, and yet all too real.
As noted above, it is important to honour the humanist socialist politics that inform this art. But art it is, and that will probably teach us more than any theory could. This is a great film by an important lone voice. Be prepared to weep tears of sympathy and rage.