Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, from the novel by Kami Garcia, starring Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, and Viola Davis.
A MODERN FAIRY TALE
After reviewing “The Gatekeepers” for this web site, I wanted to see some fantasy, something light, so I checked out “Beautiful Creatures.” Another reason is that one reviewer said that Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson make a meal of the scenery. I love both and enjoy them in anything, and listening to Jeremy Irons’ voice with its oily, James Mason-smooth, rich delivery. If anything, maybe this film will get teens to read.
It is a modern fairy tale in which the sought after young girl is not a princess but a witch who comes from a long line of witches and warlocks. Except they’re not called “witches” but “casters” as in casting spells. Not casters like wheels for moving furniture around. “Creatures” stars two unknown (to me, anyway) actors, Alice Englert as Lena Duchannes, the caster, and her teen-age suitor, Ethan Wate played by Alden Ehrenreich, who has the endearing vocal inflections and mannerisms of a young Leonardo diCaprio. Alice Englert is the daughter of filmmaker Jane Campion; Alden Ehrenreich is said to have been discovered by Stephen Spielberg at a friend’s barmitzvah. If he’s never acted before, you wouldn’t know it by his portrayal of Ethan. He’s a natural.
Ethan lives in a small, moss-covered town in North Carolina. He wants to get out, and sees college as a way. His only escape is books- good ones- literature. Real books- paper backs. He reads Vonnegut, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Salinger, Bukowski, and more. His mother is allegedly dead; his father non-compos-mentis with Alzheimer’s and never appears. Ethan has been cared for since infancy by Amma, played by Viola Davis in a familiar role as a wise, spiritual, all-knowing woman, who lives in a spooky house in the swamps. She is the town librarian, dresses in the latest African chic: prints, bangles, etc, and has a key to a hidden vault of secrets reminiscent of Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code.” Part of the town’s history goes back to the Civil War and each year the townsfolk take part in a Civil War re-enactment of the Battle of Honey Hill. There are flashbacks to that era shown in dreamy, surreal scenes in which a young woman a la Scarlett O’Hara, loses her young Confederate soldier to Union fire- but spookily brings him back to life. (Could it be? . . .)
One of the things I loved about “Creatures” is that it shies away from stereotypes as much as possible in a fairy tale: Lena, as a caster, is not a pale, anorexic, willowy girl who dresses in long, clinging, black dresses. Though Ethan has been seeing her this way in recurring dreams, with long, black tendrils hiding her face. In real life, Lena is the picture of rosy-cheeked health and dresses like a typical teen. Anyway, seems she has been kicked out of every high school from here to Hades and ends up a senior at Ethan’s. She’s the newby, and is taunted and bullied by her bland, blond classmates. (They suffer the consequences.)
Lena lives with her Uncle Macon Ravenswood (Jeremy Irons). From the exterior, the house looks like the Munster mansion- all ropey vines, a squeaky, baroque, wrought-iron gate, a long, winding road o’er shadowed with cypresses festooned with Spanish Moss. Ethan pays an uninvited visit hoping to talk to her. He is the only one willing to befriend her, having, like I said, seen her in his dreams. The heavily carved door is, of course, somehow ajar. He pushes his way in. We expect to see a dark room, dimly lit with wall sconces and candelabras; overstuffed, 17th century furniture, including a mahogany dining table with scrolled legs, ending in dragon claws, clutching amber balls. But what a delightful surprise! It is nothing you’d expect. When Uncle Macon appears, he is elegant- suavely dressed in cream silks, his grey mane swept back in deep waves. He speaks in well-modulated, orotund tones.
Naturally, there is a curse that has to be broken if Ethan is to get the girl before she goes over to the dark side when she turns 16 in a few weeks, epitomized by her cousin Sidney Duchannes (Emmy Rossum), who wears slinky, red dresses, shades, and speeds around in a sporty red convertible. You know she’s evil when she causes a squad car to suddenly career off the road and burst into flames. Another hint is that her eyes became supra-naturally luminescent immediately before she executes an evil deed. The introduction of Sidney was, I thought, an unnecessary element, except she was a device to influence Ethan’s best friend and get Lena to come over to the dark side. But the family relationships got confusing. What with shape-shifting Emma Thomson as Mrs. Lincoln, the town radical fundamentalist Christian AND Serafine, Macon’s dark, caster of a sister, and Lena’s mother, as well as a bunch of other ageless relatives: Gramma (Eileen Atkins), Aunt Del (Margo Martindale), a little-seen brother, etc.
One of the high-lights of the film takes place at a banquet at Macon’s. Everyone’s been called together to convince the young lovers to break it off. Ethan finds himself seated at the sumptuous table headed by Macon, with Lena and all the relatives. Everything’s quiet. In the background we hear the theme from the 1959 movie, “A Summer Place.” Broke me up. Then the room starts spinning around. I expected everyone to end up as butter when it stopped.
Amma shows the pair the secret vault in the library where the history of the Duchannes and Ravenswood families are kept in leather-bound tomes that only Lena is privy to. Spells are cast, Ethan loses his memory, Lena stays in her room and pouts. It’s as though they’d never met. Soon they all gear up for the re-enactment. There’s some shape-shifting going on, someone is accidentally shot dead with a real bullet and is brought back to life in another body. Serafina? Next time you’re in the woods and see a tangle of thick vines choking a tree, think of her. Yes, it did get a little hard to follow. Ethan drives down the road, off to college. Lena is in her room studying. She looks up. Her eyes reveal her new state of being. The movie ends with nothing resolved, but you come away feeling that somehow, the young lovers will end up together.