Another week, another failed Young Adult adaptation. This one floundered on its release about this time last year and it’s easy to see why. Possessed of the Southern flavour flaunted by True Blood, but without the libido, Beautiful Creatures is entirely mechanical in its construction of a supernatural world where teenagers both mortal and immortal (see Twilight) interact in a post-Whedon landscape of chosen ones and dark destinies. Richard La Gravenese, who made a splash early in his career with The Fisher King for Terry Gilliam, does his best on scripting and megaphone duties, but he’s unable to wring out anything very memorable.
The movie starts reasonably well though, and unlike many a YA picture, La Gravenese has managed to attract a supporting cast of colourful thesps who, when they’re occasionally granted a scene to themselves (as is more common during the first half) dispel the overpowering odour of the rather insipid love story. That’s not to diminish the leads. Both Aldren Ehrenreich (as mortal Ethan) and Alice Englert (as nearly-come-of-age caster – read witch – Lena) are much more skilled and vital than most of their corresponding YA protagonists.
The scenario is all-too familiar; boy wants to leave small town, meets strange and mysterious girl, they fall for each other but their love is forbidden and dangerous. As such, the mystery of the set-up of is much more engaging before we’ve found out who is who and what is what. The intimations of possible past incarnations during the American Civil War is an intriguing one, but unfortunately is revealed to be (relatively) mundane. Indeed, the whole back-story of the Macons’ (Lean’s family) ownership of the town of Gatlin is underexplored. And, when the entire family are introduced, it’s something akin to The Addams Family meets Twilight. But not nearly as twisted as that sounds.
So thank heavens for Jeremy Irons, digging into a southern drawl as if there’s a serious ham shortage looming. As Lena’s Uncle Macon Ravenwood he gets all the best lines, dripping with sardonic superiority (“A voice of reason in a town of buttermilk minds” Macon says of Ethan’s mother). When he bewitches Ethan into reeling off a particularly depressing future life map, which ends with “And when I’m 64, I’ll hang myself”, Macon congratulates him; “You’ve got it all planned out. Good for you”. Indeed, early scenes such as this briefly fooled me into thinking Beautiful Creatures might be a genuinely sharp and witty tale throughout. Ehrenreich deftly shows off his comedic skills during a fractious dinner invitation to the Ravenwood residence; alas it descends into subpar CGI, but there’s some vibrancy and fun there for a while.
I had hopes for Emma Thompson’s dual duties as Bible-bashing Mavis and fearsome sister of Macon Sarafine (there’s a curse on the females in the family such that they turn to the dark side, you see), but La Gravenese doesn’t offer her nearly enough naughtiness (there was surely plenty of potential for Witches of Eastwick-esque antics with a pillar of the community possessed by infernal forces).
I should also single out Emmy Rossum, who not only looks delicious as Lena’s black-hearted cousin and former best chum Ridley but enters the scene with the energy and confidence that suggests she will steal the picture from the leads and her elder supporting co-stars. Unfortunately, that’s not to be, as Ridley has to make room for Sarafine and is all but forgotten. I haven’t been watching the US version of Shameless, so I can’t speak for her performance there, but if nothing else Beautiful Creatures ought to be an effective calling card for bigger and better feature roles.
The “Christianity versus the old religion” subplot is so overused these days, it’s not funny; I think we’re all aware by now how the ones purportedly teaching forgiveness are really the intolerant ones and those practicing the black arts are just misunderstood. That’s the chief problem here; co-authors (of the novel) Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl seem to have taken the teen-fiction writers’ guide (mean kids at school, just the one who really understands the misfit, abundant obstacles to true love winning through), grafted on the South Carolina setting, and ensured every hoary old cliché of both is present and correct.
There are tiresomely obvious speeches about how immortals admire humans for never giving up (this is the Spock/Gandalf school of bigging up the little people) and teenage admonishments of how everyone has to deal with shit; the special are nothing special in that regard. Viola Davis, possibly intended to take on the Giles role from Buffy, unfortunately ends up fulfilling just the latest in the dubious tradition of “Magical Negro” supporting characters. Such predictability doesn’t appear to have affected the series’ sales (four have been published so far), but it seems cinema audiences are less forgiving.
The biggest problem with Beautiful Creatures is that the middle section gets irretrievably bogged down in Lena’s search for a spell to break her curse. Which entails moping about a library (a nicely rendered library, but a library nonetheless) for what seems like an eternity. Once the momentum has gone from storytelling La Gravenese can’t reignite it, and even a rather decent twist I didn’t see coming can’t make-up for the descent into tedium the picture takes.
La Gravenese, aided by frequent Tim Burton cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, ensures the picture at least looks lush (the effects budget frequently can’t match the ambition, however), and the design is effective; the Ravenwood mansion evidently had a fair bit spent on it (nice stairs). As writer, he also sprinkles on an array of literary and pop culture references; not as fastidiously as Whedon is wont to, but I liked the addition of the “e” in Finale Destination 6.
Of course, everyone involved was hopefully this would be the next big thing so the picture ends with an eye towards the next instalment. I guess at one mighty argue that, however horrible Twilight mostly was, it did pull some genuine weirdness in its last episode(s). I doubt that anything unpredictable was in store for Beautiful Creatures. I keep wanting to call it Heavenly Creatures, which makes for highly unflattering comparisons. Full marks for imaginative casting then, but La Gravenese needed to throw half the novel out of the window if the was going to make it work on screen.