The Beguiled (2017)
Innocent, until betrayed.
It can be argued that adding sex and violence to any form of literature will enliven it, these animalistic sensations some of our most tantalizing. It’s a shame, then, that Sofia Coppola’s latest, The Beguiled, teases us with hints of lovemaking and blood yet never really commits to either. Yes, it’s the sex and violence that drive this comically dark tale, even though they remain slightly out of reach in the background. Loosely based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel, which Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood adapted to film in 1971, The Beguiled sees Coppola re-shape this Southern Gothic fairytale and present it from a feminist point of view.
Set in Virginia, 1864, The Beguiled opens with an eerie sequence that sees an 11-year old girl, Miss Amy (Oona Laurence), stroll through the woods in search of mushrooms — the American Civil War raging far off in the distance. She eventually comes across John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Corporal in the Union Army who’d wounded his leg, McBurney having deserted his regiment, ashamed of his gutless act. The compassionate Amy decides to take John back to her isolated plantation home (formerly a girls’ boarding school), a bubble or quarantine that appears to have been untouched by the turmoil outside. Once there, headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) decides that ‘the Christian thing to do’ would be to harbor the enemy and tend to his wounds in a secluded music room, then hand him over to the Confederate soldiers after he’s recovered.
There are only five girls at the school, outside of Amy and Martha; there’s chaste instructor Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), tarty teen Alicia (Elle Fanning), and their peers Jane (Angourie Rice), Emily (Emma Howard) and Marie (Addison Riecke). As McBurney is slowly nursed back to health, he begins to help out in the garden, digging up flowerbeds and pruning roses, where he works up a sweat, the strapping hunk toying with the girls’ affections — befriending Amy, flirting with Alicia and professing his undying love to the soulful Edwina. Granted, it’s not entirely his fault, as having a man in the house seems to have gotten the gals quite hormonal and flustered — all of a sudden they’re tightening their corsets, dressing up, wearing pearl earrings and sneaking to the music room to get a glimpse of the forbidden fruit, Miss Martha unable to control the turbulence. But is it McBurney who’s manipulating the girls or are they bending him to their will? Needless to say, when Edwina finds McBurney fooling around in Alicia’s bed, things take a rather bleak and unruly turn for the worse.
Adapted from Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp’s ’71 screenplay, this re-vamp features several changes, mainly the omission of a young slave girl (named Hattie), who, in the original story, also lived at Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies. While it would’ve been historically accurate to keep the character in her film, Coppola has suggested that it would’ve felt odd without addressing the weighty topic of slavery, which, let’s face it, could’ve derailed the entire narrative. Therefore, I have no qualms with the 46-year old filmmaker removing the servant so that she could focus solely on the central plot and the psychosexual tension within the manor.
Unlike Siegel’s picture, Coppola’s re-make is more of a subtle black comedy rather than a pulpy ’70s thriller, this sensual overhaul at its best when writer-director Coppola is exploring the humor within the situation — a hilarious dinner scene where the girls vie for John’s attention, batting their eyelashes whilst speaking in double entendres, is a snickering delight. And I’m sure Farrell’s fans will no doubt enjoy seeing Martha sponge down his buff bod with a wet cloth. Alas, for such a dynamic set-up, ripe with possibility, the narrative falls a little short, some of its key moments rather vague, the film missing that smidgen of sex or violence that was promised in it’s advertising.
Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), heads a solid ensemble as the stern matron Miss Martha Farnsworth, an icy headmistress that has no problem rolling up her sleeves and doing what needs to be done, however grim or ghastly. Kirsten Dunst, in her third collaboration with Coppola, is okay as Miss Edwina Dabney, the dowdy teacher who falls for McBurney after he begins to complement her, later blurting out that he’s fallen in love with her (when it looks as though his leg has all but healed), their connection never coming across as overly organic. Rising Aussie actress Angourie Rice, The Nice Guys (2016), does some good work as the emotional Jane, whereas Elle Fanning, The Neon Demon (2016), alternates between uninterested and bored till Farrell’s McBurney shows up, unleashing her mischievous teenage urges, whilst the always-wonderful Oona Laurence, Southpaw (2015), is excellent as the outdoorsy Amy, proving once again why she’s one of the best young actresses working today. Elsewhere, Colin Farrell, The Lobster (2015), brings a dash of vulnerability to the role of Corporal McBurney, the gruff, bearded Irishman who, after a bit of grooming, is transformed into a charming gentleman, one who exploits the ladies so that he can stay at the school, where they’ll continue to swoon over him.
Handsomely shot by Philippe Le Sourd, Seven Pounds (2008), The Beguiled looks rather splendid; from the dimly lit candlelight interiors (inside the white-columned manor) to its oak-shrouded surroundings, each and every frame is marvelously picturesque, the atmosphere simply hypnotic. Certainly watchable, The Beguiled ultimately suffers from its own lack of melodrama, Sofia Coppola’s sixth feature never living up to the potential of its simmering premise. Yes, The Beguiled finishes with a cadaver, but its climax still feels flat. I don’t know, maybe it’s the man in me, but I could’ve done with a little more spice!
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Mr. Movie