Mark Reviews Movies

The Beguiled (2017)


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Sofia Coppola

Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard

MPAA Rating: R (for some sexuality)

Running Time: 1:33

Release Date: 6/23/17 (limited); 6/30/17 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 29, 2017

Sofia Coppola's version of The Beguiled, an adaptation of Thomas Cullinan's 1966 novel (originally titled A Painted Devil) and a remake of the 1971 film of the same, is perhaps best viewed as a complementary companion piece to the first film. On its own, it's difficult to tell what Coppola is attempting to say, although it's quite apparent what she's trying to do. Looking at the movie next to director Don Siegel's version of this story, though, what Coppola is trying to do with her variation becomes even clearer, and even more importantly, an idea of what the writer/director is trying to say with the movie begins to emerge.

The key shift is one of perspective. Coppola has all but eliminated the internal nature and back story of the sole male character of note in the story. Her eyes are trained on the women, Southern belles of various ages who are essentially trapped in a boarding school, located in a remote area of Virginia. It is 1864—three years into the Civil War. The sounds of cannon fire can be heard rumbling in the distance. Smoke from the battle rises above the trees that surround the plantation-style manor that is the school (Coppola also removes any reference to slavery, which seems odd, given the time, the place, and the fact of the inherently political nature of conflict that unfolds between the man—a Union soldier—and his female caretakers—loyal Confederates).

The women, led by the school's headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), have established a routine of classes, housework, gardening, meals together, and nightly prayers before curfew. We gather this after the fact of the major disruption into their lives: the young Amy's (Oona Laurence) discovery of Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in the woods. His leg is injured—impacted by and filled with shrapnel.

Amy helps him back to the school, where the women and girls are unsure of what to do with the stranger and enemy in their midst. The expedient thing would be to turn him over to one of the patrols of Confederate troops that pass by every so often. The Christian thing would be to tend to his wound and help along his recovery, until he's healthy enough to survive in a prisoner-of-war camp. As good, God-fearing Southern ladies, they decide on the latter option.

The central point is observing how the presence of a man affects these characters. He is a foreign entity to almost all of them. The girls likely have never been exposed to the constant company of a man who isn't a family member. Amy behaves around him like an older friend or an elder brother, and Jane (Angourie Rice) is suspicious of him, having heard rumors of the dastardly psychology and behavior of the Yankees. Alicia (Elle Fanning), the eldest of the students, is drawn to him in a way of which her younger classmates may only have an inkling. Her desire for him to say has little to do with Christian charity, given that she sneaks away in the middle of nightly prayers to steal a couple of kisses from him.

Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), the only remaining teacher, has moved to too many places with her entrepreneurial father to ever have considered the affections of a man. Martha hints that she's war widow, and her gaze on McBurney changes from averting her eyes when she bathes his hips to longer looks by candlelight (Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd sticks to natural lighting here, providing plenty of shadows to go along with the hidden motives of these characters).

This is the bulk of the story—the way in which the women adapt to a man, who himself seems to be adapting with every step of his recovery and to every look or word from the women and girls. He only seems that way, because Coppola has written him as an enigma—a man who, by all appearances, comes across as sincere, if slightly amused by his dumb luck of falling out of war and into the caring arms of these women, and harmless.

Those who recall the 1971 film may find this odd, since the man in that film was a dedicated scoundrel, who manipulated everyone he could for his own, twisted ends. Here, McBurney has to make a transition from innocent to threat for the story's climax to arrive, and to be frank, his reaction to an unexpected case of emergency surgery is, well, understandable. Yes, his caddish behavior in one moment leads to it, not to mention that his response is one of intimidation and violence, but since there's no hint of that beforehand, it's almost too easy to see him as being wronged in this situation.

What's missing from this version, then, is a sense of the gender dynamics and sexual politics at play within the story. Coppola has made a movie about the sexual drives of women who have been sheltered for too long (which, perhaps unintentionally, seems to view them as the villains of the story), but it comes across as incomplete, distant, and, ironically, rather chaste about the whole sex thing. That puts The Beguiled in a strange place. It is, definitely, its own vision, but the movie almost needs its predecessor for any sense to be made of that vision.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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