When classy, pedigreed British actors go hog-wild under the flowering dogwood trees of a Southern Gothic setting, often the results are good. Just as often, they’re so bad they’re good. And sometimes, as is the case with Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson in Beautiful Creatures, they’re simply doing the best they can under the circumstances.
Many in the target teen audience for this romantic fantasy, taken from the young-adult novels by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, will be unfamiliar with the names or faces of Irons and Thompson. These kids today! No respect for talent recognized by awards bestowed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
But Irons and Thompson, whose Oscars aren’t likely to get any company for their supporting turns here, at least bring the zest generally lacking from writer-director Richard LaGravenese’s dutiful adaptation. A little True Blood, a glint of Twilight, Beautiful Creatures concerns forbidden teenage love down in Gatlin, South Carolina, where life is a clique-y mélange of mortals (humans) and “casters,” or supernaturally gifted families whose warring impulses between good and evil are perpetually in conflict, as they are in so many high schools.
Bookish senior Ethan, portrayed by Alden Ehrenreich, is a kid plagued by a recurring Civil War-era nightmare (Help! I’m trapped in an outtake from Lincoln!) he cannot explain or understand. The girl in his dream looks oddly like the mysterious new student in town, Lena (Alice Englert, daughter of filmmaker Jane Campion). Shunned by the snippy little book-banning mean-girl twits of Gatlin (The Fountainhead? This town bans The Fountainhead?!?), Lena is one of a long line of casters. As she approaches her 16th birthday, outcast Lena must prepare herself to be “claimed” by “the dark.” Love for a mortal is no good for this special breed of caster, who can telekinetically do whatever she likes with wind, fire, water and air. She’s like The Last Airbender with three bonus bends.
Irons plays her creepy, skulking Uncle Macon, who dresses in Richard Chamberlain garb circa 1979, and pivots between sincere overprotection of his niece and something a little more supernaturally suggestive. Thompson shows up as the book-banning-est of the local fundamentalists, intent on driving Lena out of town. Thompson’s character is not what she seems. You can’t say the same for the film, which LaGravenese struggles to compact into a workable two-hours-plus-change franchise launch.
“Love’s a risk for anybody,” we learn, and if that’s not helpful enough, Viola Davis (as the town librarian, mythology expert and full-time wise onlooker) is around to dispense exposition and remind Ethan to “stay away from that girl.” He can’t, natch, and so Beautiful Creatures puts Lena between the rock of Ethan and the hard place of being “claimed,” which I can’t claim to fully understand, except that it may have something to do with insurance claims. Irons simultaneously under- and overplays, rolling a variety of dialects around in gently recreational style, while Thompson swings for the fences, and why not? Actors of her droll caliber may not get back down to the American South again for a while. Unless the movie’s a hit, that is.
Beautiful Creatures (R) ★★✩✩✩