Gallic helmer Agnes Merlet delivers a fairy-tale romance between a girl with a hereditary cancer and a boy with an inherited curse in “Hideaways,” her second Ireland-set, English-language feature (after “Dorothy Mills”). An imaginative scene-setter, Merlet conjures a hidden refuge at the heart of a magic-blighted forest with the same visual wizardry with which she artfully fleshed out decadent 15th-century Rome in “Artemisia.” Although her storytelling sometimes lacks the depth and emotional resonance of her landscapes, charismatic teenage leads Rachel Hurd-Wood and Harry Treadaway may attract “Twilight”-type interest in limited release.
The Furlong men carry a strange genetic strain: Strong emotions trigger effects as weird as they are involuntary. Grandpa goes blind each time he thinks about sex. When Philip (Aaron Monaghan) feels fear, all mechanisms in his vicinity stop working. His anxiety stalls his car on the way to the hospital, resulting in his wife’s death while giving birth to son James (Treadaway).
James’ peculiar power is most dire: Whenever he experiences pain, it radiates outward until every living thing nearby shrivels up and dies, claiming the lives of his father, his grandmother, several cows and assorted forms of vegetation the first time it hits.
James winds up in a reformatory, where an attack by bullies wipes out a good portion of the school, and seriously injures his one friend, Liam. James runs off to the woods, determined to do no further harm.
Several years later, Mae O’Mara (Rachel Hurd-Wood), a terminal cancer patient at the reformatory-turned-hospital, escapes from her loving mother (Susan Lynch) and other well-wishers, feeling the need to wander the woods. There she encounters James and accompanies him back to his cabin, surrounded by withered flora and fauna. The two death-haunted figures fall in love, causing leaves to sprout on the blackened trees and birds to sing on their branches. Mae returns to the hospital where her beauty and joie de vive make her beloved by staff and patients alike, particularly a now-teenage Liam (Thomas Brodie Sangster), chronically ill and bent on revenge.
While the film does justice to the story’s more poetic, farfetched conceits — the creeping circle of dead and dying vegetation, its miraculous rebirth, the young lovers’ burgeoning wonderment, and a protracted underwater showdown — the more realistic, earthbound aspects sometimes come off as muddied and confused.
The Furlongs and their respective curses are treated too cursorily to read much into their afflictions, and a lack of follow-through works against the mythos: Philip, whose bugaboo was supposedly fear, subsequently shows nothing but anger, impatiently pacing and muttering. Frail Liam, whose love for James made him so memorably ethereal as a child, retains little of that otherworldliness as a misguided teen.