After the dull and muddled disappointment of “The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones”, I was a bit reluctant to continue catching up with all the ‘young adult’ adaptations vying to be the next “Twilight”. Thankfully, “Beautiful Creatures” is quite a different beast: a kind of easy going, down-home, selectively antebellum gothic love story.
In the small South Carolina town of Gatlin as the summer comes to an end, lazily iconoclastic high school student Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) has recurring dreams of a girl he doesn’t know. Arriving for his first day at school, he encounters a newcomer to the town: Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), who is strikingly like the girl of his dreams. However, town gossip holds that her reclusive uncle Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons) is a devil worshipper and that Lena is likely to be a witch. But the gossips are closer to the truth than they realise and the time is coming when Lena’s powers will fully manifest and an ancient family curse will claim her for the light, or the dark…
There’s a leisurely pace to the story which befits its sweltering southern setting and unlike many of its contemporaries, there’s not an overkill of exposition, competing plot lines or world building going on here. A larger mystical world and conflict are suggested but the film is content to focus on Lena’s story and credits you with the ability to follow the breadcrumbs of information and slowly accrue the context within which Lena’s journey assumes its significance. While the mythology and history are introduced gently, the story builds up to a decently tense climax involving – what else? – a Civil War re-enactment.
With the familiar trappings of YA fiction (moody, bookish, introspective mortal, supernatural love interest with a moral choice between good and evil), it’s down to the setting and performances to really elevate this tale. Set in a fictionalised American South, there are plenty of stereotypes and clichés but also some conspicuously reassurances of progress for today’s more sensitive cinema goer. For example, there is a pair of viciously catty mean girl types in Lena’s class, who gossip and rabble rouse but one of them is black, so it’s okay and you know certain things have moved on in this otherwise piously conservative town. The young leads turn in good performances but the film is stolen by Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson who are clearly having the time of their lives chewing up the scenery with their cartoonish southern drawls and exquisitely Samuel Clemens-esque dialogue.
Not quite the Twilight-aping mega franchise it was intended to be, it’s a diverting film which deserved to do better at the box office and may find a more understanding audience on DVD.