June 30, 2017

The Beguiled

Wait, we're missing a Fanning sister

Grade: B –
Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence, Emma Howard, and Addison Riecke
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hr. 36 min.

The Beguiled is how Wonder Woman might have turned out if Steve Trevor never left Themyscira. An injured soldier lands on the doorstep of an all-woman world, both beset by suspicions over the other’s motives. While out picking mushrooms in Civil War-era Virginia, twelve-year-old Amy (Oona Laurence) stumbles across Union corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), separated from his regiment and his leg badly wounded. Amy helps John stagger back to Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, an erstwhile plantation home that’s now a boarding school housing its titular headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman), head teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and five female pupils in varying stages of maturation and development.

All express initial consternation over the arrival of this dastardly “blue belly,” but they agree to nurse John back to health before turning him over to Confederate authorities. Their Christian charity gradually segues into undercurrents of infatuation and sexual tensions, sourced from a combination of John’s fawning and a cloistered setting devoid of male presence. Amy melts under John’s assurance that she’s his “best friend” in the house. The otherwise reproving Jane (Angourie Rice) basks in John’s praises of her musical skill. The comely Alicia (Elle Fanning) openly flirts with the visitor. The widowed Martha avails herself of John’s company under the guise of courtly hospitality and appears mildly jealous of his open fondness for Edwina. The uneasy milieu of manners unravels one night when John is caught in one of the lady’s chambers, triggering a macabre cascade of events.

This is the second film adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s Southern Gothic novel, “The Painted Devil,” following Don Siegel’s 1971 version starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page.  It’s easy to see why director Sofia Coppola is attracted to a narrative that revolves around feminine empowerment and self-discovery, often in a privileged environs, à la her previous films Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, and The Bling Ring. Here, Coppola shifts much of the male perspective in the 1971 adaptation to the female viewpoint, with mixed success. This comes at the expense of historical or cultural context. We hear little about the toll of the war, and even less about about John’s background. Coppola omits the slave character Hallie, present in both Cullinan’s book and the first film.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “beguiled” as to charm or enchant, sometimes in a deceptive way. It’s difficult, perhaps intentionally, to determine who is being deceptively charming in The Beguiled. The likely answer is everyone. But while the southern surroundings—filmed in Louisiana—hang heavy with mist and moss, the intoxicating atmospherics subsume the story. John and Edwina’s coupling progresses without much prompting—for example, his profession of “love” flies out of nowhere, as does the sharply emotional to and fro of their relationship throughout. Meanwhile, John and Martha’s increasingly corrosive interplay feels forced, born from narrative necessity rather than plot. While the ravages of war are fought far away, Miss Farnsworth’s wards don’t appear to want for food, shelter, or lace—their lone casualty is an untended garden, the double entendre undoubtedly intended. The film’s dubious lesson is that a patina of deportment and divinity cannot stifle the deep divides of gender and culture. Affairs of the heart, like toadstools, sometimes turn out to be poisonous.

1 comment:

Time to check Brick Tiles said...

This has always been one of my favorite movies so I was very excited to hear they were remaking it. THEN I found out it was a book! I ordered it immediately and started reading it the minute it was delivered. I have not been disappointed. This book will become one of my favorites I am sure.