Monday, July 10, 2017

The Beguiled (2017)

The latest from director and screenwriter Sofia Coppola won her a Best Director prize at this year's Cannes. It's a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie of the same name directed by Don Siegel—or, at least, it's based on the same literary property, the 1966 novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan. I don't know the novel, or the '71 movie, but obviously this is focused more on the women's point of view. It's a spooky Southern gothic by all the signals, or wants to be, a period piece set in Civil War Virginia full of hysterical women and violent men. I was never strongly persuaded by the story about a wounded Yankee soldier behind enemy lines. He may or may not be deserting from the war, but anyway he is injured and comes to find himself in the care of the seven Southern women and girls left eking out a life (and education) at Martha Farnsworth's boarding school for girls. It's 1864 and the fog of war is banked thick—those still at the school have lost people, or everyone. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is a no-nonsense schoolmarm and Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) is the last teacher left. For some reason, they don't want to turn the wounded soldier over to their own. They treat his wounds and keep him out of sight. The two single women and five adolescent girls deliver random charges of undirected sexual energy, especially with a handsome, dashing, and vulnerable soldier in the house. They are all drawn to Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in many different ways. Elle Fanning is a sexualized adolescent with a powerful crush and Oona Laurence is an endearingly sincere botany nerd. Miss Farnsworth and Edwina have their own histories and feelings about the situation. Inevitably there's some Virgin Suicides chemistry in the many scenes with the girls in groups, and in the strange group psychologies too, as strained through Tennessee Williams. The presence alone of a man among these women and girls works old-fashioned alchemy on them—they dress up a little more, sneak into the room where he rests to visit, each with her own agenda, and nervous jealous spats erupt among them. McBurney is hard to read, an Irishman recently come to America, and a substitute who accepted money to take the place of a Northerner in the war. He may or may not be a rogue, but he's certainly a man alone with women with nothing to do besides rest, recuperate, and study. He appears to have no particular loyalty, in love or war. Things in The Beguiled are generally going in one direction and then with a single incident suddenly shift to another, opening the picture and momentarily promising to take it to unexpected places. But then it shifts smoothly back to less surprising precincts. That could be a problem with the novel. Or it could be my problem with Tennessee Williams. The performances are hothouse great, with lots of skillful ensemble pieces, but I came away a little underwhelmed. I'm scoring The Beguiled as more of a miss.

1 comment:

  1. Agree with all of that. Even granting the switch in perspective (haven't seen the original or read the novel), it all seemed rather pointless to me.