Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emma Thompson, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann
Rating: PG-13, for carnal behavior, violence and occasional profanity
Popular teen-lit series makes a thoroughly absorbing jump to the big screen
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
Fantasy fans mourning the departure of the Harry Potter and “Twilight” series will find plenty to enjoy in director/scripter Richard LaGravenese’s lush, well-mounted adaptation of “Beautiful Creatures,” the first novel in Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s “Caster Chronicles” tetralogy.
The contemporary Southern Gothic setting is irresistible, right from the start, and production designer Richard Sherman has a ball with Ravenwood Manor, the mysterious estate that looms at the fringes of this small South Carolina town. The atmosphere borrows slightly from both Stephenie Meyer (“Twilight”) and Charlaine Harris (the Sookie Stackhouse novels that led to HBO’s “True Blood”), but you’ll also detect elements of “Dark Shadows” and “The Addams Family.”
Along with, I’m delighted to report, a fairly strong echo of Ray Bradbury’s various tales of the supernatural Elliot family, introduced in the 1945 short story “The Traveler” and, ultimately, earning a novel, “From the Dust Returned,” in 2001.
Quite a delectable collection of ingredients.
As we’re informed by 17-year-old Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), his hometown of Gatlin never quite made it to the 21st century, and many of the town’s small-minded, Bible-quoting citizens seem unwilling to embrace the modern world.
Ethan endears himself to us immediately, thanks to his fondness for reading everything on the community’s copious banned books list. The film begins at the advent of a new school year, with Ethan plainly having outgrown the holier-than-thou conceit of former girlfriend Emily (Zoey Deutch). He’s much more intrigued by new student Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), whose presence immediately scandalizes Emily and her equally stuck-up, self-righteous best friend Savannah (Tiffany Boone).
Because, as everybody knows, Lena lives in Ravenwood Manor.
Matters aren’t helped by freakish lightning strikes and other strange events that seem to have coincided with Lena’s arrival … at least, that’s the way the sanctimonious Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson) sees it. She demands that Lena be expelled from school during a town meeting that turns livelier with the unexpected arrival of the reclusive Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons).
Macon points out, gently but firmly — with every word weighted by Irons’ marvelously sweet but threatening gaze — that he owns a good portion of Gatlin. Incur his wrath by expelling his niece, and, why, who knows how he might respond.
Check and mate. Much to Mrs. Lincoln’s simmering fury.
In truth, though, there is something unusual about Lena, as Ethan knows better than anybody. He has suffered the same recurring dream for months, about a dark-haired young woman whose face never quite reveals itself, and a Civil War battlefield where a young soldier is shot while trying to reach his own beloved.
Lena, Ethan now realizes, is — literally — the dark-haired girl of his dreams.
LaGravenese takes his time introducing the primary players and establishing all these details. He’s an elegant, intelligent writer with a flair for piquant dialogue laced with subtle connotations: just right for this material. We’ve enjoyed his work on films as diverse as “A Little Princess,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “The Horse Whisperer” and “The Fisher King,” the latter bringing him a well-deserved Academy Award nomination.
Macon does his best to keep his niece away from Ethan, starting with a casual conversation that turns disturbingly grim (a scene that Ehrenreich plays perfectly). But young love is not to be denied, mostly because Lena is just as captivated by Ethan, as he is with her.
Eventually, then, Ethan meets more members of Lena’s extended family: the prim Gramma (Eileen Atkins) and often flustered Aunt Del (Margo Martindale), and the quiet cousin Larkin (Kyle Gallner).
And cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum). Particularly Ridley, a voluptuous free spirit with a fondness for scanty clothing and decidedly malignant behavior.
At which point, we and Ethan learn the truth: Lena and her clan are “casters,” a term they prefer to the pejorative label of “witch.” All casters have powers, particularly the women, who face a “claiming” on their 16th birthday: the point at which they’re “taken” either by Light or Dark forces.
Ridley, once a sweet girl and Lena’s best friend, was claimed by the Dark; she became a siren, doomed — and delighted — to toy with men of any age. The Dark forces are ruled by Sarafine, an unseen (but hovering) figure of pure wickedness who hopes that Lena, as well, will embrace evil upon her upcoming 16th birthday.
Quite a pickle. And rather a lot for a small-town boy to absorb.
But Ethan’s up for the challenge, and not merely because he has grown to adore Lena. Ehrenreich gives the young man just the right blend of intelligence, spunk and mule-stubborn determination; he’s a captivating young hero, even though he tends to be acted upon, rather than act. He is, after all, the helpless mortal in this heady brew, much like frustrated young Timothy, the only normal member of Bradbury’s Elliot family.
We’re charmed both by Ehrenreich’s broad smile and affable behavior, and by the sly, tart dialogue LaGravenese grants him, both as narrator and during exchanges with all these strange people.
Englert’s Lena is equally captivating: initially aloof, having learned to be wary of “normals,” and then every inch the winsome young woman won over by Ethan’s unwavering pursuit. Englert is far more interesting and engaging, and has a more vibrant presence, than Kristen Stewart’s dull, pouty Bella Swan in the “Twilight” films.
Irons lends these proceedings an aristocratic flair as the rather complicated Macon, a character we can’t nail down for quite a while; Irons handles that duality sublimely. And Rossum is a hoot as the vampish Ridley, who relishes her own depravity and then worries us — big time — when her attentions turn to Ethan’s best friend, Link (Thomas Mann) … who happens to be Mrs. Lincoln’s son.
Viola Davis delivers another of her rich, dignified performances as Amma, the town librarian and a longtime friend of Ethan’s family, who has her own unexpected place in these events.
The film is pretty much stolen, though, by Emma Thompson. She’s spot-on as the sort of intrusive, self-righteous busybody who fancies herself the town’s unofficial Christian soul: a meddling do-gooder convinced that she knows what’s best for everybody. But Thompson really goes to town once things kick into gear, thanks to a plot twist I’d rather not reveal here. Suffice to say, Thompson truly knows how to deliver a line. All her lines.
“Beautiful Redemption,” Garcia and Stohl’s fourth and final (?) book in the series, was just released in October. LaGravenese has done a lovely job with this adaptation of the first book, and all the elements certainly are in place for an ongoing series. The question is whether the fantasy faithful will embrace this cinematic interpretation, where so many other efforts — “The Golden Compass” and “The Lightning Thief” come to mind — have perished after only one film.
Fingers crossed, then … because I hope to see more of Ethan and Lena on the big screen.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com