Feb 21, 2013

Beautiful Creatures [12A]

Dir: Richard LaGravenese
When I saw the trailer for Beautiful Creatures my heart, as it so often does during trailer reels, sank.  I thought I was done with this supernatural romance twaddle, but no sooner has Twilight finally gone away than this - which basically looked like a gender reversed version of that accursed series with a witch in place of a vampire - rears its head.  It looked like horribly acted, idiotic, cheese for fourteen year old girls.  Unfortunately, I'm a film critic and something of a cinemasochist, so off I went to check it out.

I don't often eat my words, and while I perhaps won't finish the plate in this case, there is definitely some humble pie to be consumed, because Beautiful Creatures is not Twilight, nor is it bad.

The story, from the first in a four book series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, is set in America's deep south in a conservative town that main character Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) can't wait to leave.  As Ethan starts his Junior year of high school there is a new arrival; Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), whose extended family have owned most of the town for generations and are said to be devil worshippers.  Ethan is fascinated by Lena, largely because he thinks he's been dreaming about her, and after she initially rebuffs him the two become friends.  It soon becomes clear that while Lena's family aren't all the evildoers that people think they are, they are different; they're casters, and soon, when she turns 16, Lena will be chosen by either the light or the dark side of magic, and this makes her friendship and eventual love for Ethan dangerous for both of them.

From that summary you're probably thinking; so far, so Twilight, and you'd be right, but for me the problem with that series was not so much the tale as the telling. That's where Beautiful Creatures exceeds expectations.  There is an absurdity about the scale of some of the themes in this story; good vs evil, the possibility that love is pre-destined, the supernatural colliding with the real world, and the first smart thing that Richard LaGravenese does from both a screenwriting and a directorial point of view is to embrace that absurdity.  He never quite allows the film to slip into parody, at least when it comes to the main characters, but around the margins he plays up the camp value, avoiding the po-faced seriousness that, ironically, made the Twilight series so hard to take seriously.  

The other strength here is in the characterisation.  That's not to say that these are world's richest and most complex characters; they're drawn in pretty broad strokes and many fall into very black and white categories of good and evil, but the central pairing have a lot going for them.  First of all both Ethan and Lena are smart, they think about and talk about things beyond the depths of their feelings for each other, and that gives those feelings a little more weight.  They're also sympathetic and, while they are definitely designed for the target audience to either see themselves as or fall in love with, neither is the empty shell of a character that we've often seen in films like this.  

The solid writing is backed up with an interesting cast, all of whom do good work in hitting the tone that LaGravenese asks of them, which is a bit different for each actor.  For example Emma Thompson (as a judgmental local possessed by an evil caster) and Jeremy Irons (as Lena's uncle, who has forced himself on to the light side of magic) have a tremendous time competing to see who can slice the ham thickest.  Almost equally big, in a different way, is Emmy Rossum's vampy performance as Lena's cousin, you can almost see her smacking her lips at how deliciously evil she is.  It's not all great news; Viola Davis has a bit of a nothing role, and I suspect there's more of her on the cutting room floor.

The leads are also good.  Alden Ehrenreich manages to give us some depth to the way Ethan feels about Lena, without coming off overly earnest, so much so that a key plot point near the end, which could easily fall flat, actually hits you.  Alice Englert was somewhat overshadowed by Elle Fanning in Ginger and Rosa, but she comes into her own her with a strong performance that gives the film's theme of good and evil both trying to pull Lena in their direction some punch.  It's also nice to see, in a film primarily targeted at teenage girls, a young female lead who is intelligent and not only doesn't wait for a boy to save her, but sees it as her job to use her special abilities to save him.

All this praise isn't to say that Beautiful Creatures is perfect.  Visually it's a little by the numbers, and has more than a handful of ropey bits of CGI, and the third act does become a bit more of a by the numbers exercise, seemingly in a bit of a hurry to get to the end credits before the film breaks the two hour barrier, when it could use some more breathing space.

On the whole though, this is much better than expected, and, that being the case, it has underperformed at the box office.  That's a pity, because the point that this film ends at is one that sets up an interesting sequel, which I'd really quite like to see made.  If you are at all on the fence about this one, or want to take your kids out for a film, I'd say it's well worth a look, and that's advice I really didn't expect to be giving.

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