The Beguiled (2017)

  • Time: 91 min
  • Genre: Drama | Western
  • Director: Sofia Coppola
  • Cast: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Colin Farrell, Elle Fanning

Storyline:

At a girls’ school in Virginia during the Civil War, where the young women have been sheltered from the outside world, a wounded Union soldier is taken in. Soon, the house is taken over with sexual tension, rivalries, and an unexpected turn of events.

One review

  • (RATING: ☆☆☆☆½ out of 5 )

    GRADE: B+

    THIS FILM IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

    IN BRIEF: A lively re-telling of a Gothic melodrama that camouflages its silly trappings with excellent acting and masterful direction.

    SYNOPSIS: A wounded Union soldier seeks some Southern comfort.

    RUNNING TIME: 1 hr., 34 mins.

    JIM’S REVIEW: “One man…seven women…in a strange house!” That was the original tagline for the 1971 Southern Gothic melodrama, The Beguiled, starring Clint Eastwood. That film was a guilty pleasure of sexual repression during the Civil War (against the free love vibes of the seventies). Its viewpoint was a warped war of the sexes, eventually leading to Mr. Eastwood’s emasculation. The anticlimactic ending remains the same in both Ms. Coppola’s version as in Mr. Siegel’s (which is far as removed from the novel’s denouncement as possible). But this remake tones down the melodrama completely and turns the film into a serious and thought provoking drama.

    Writer / Director Sofia Coppola has taken Don Siegel’s cult film and given it a revisionist spin. Her battle of the sexes tale has streamlined its story, eliminated any vestige of the slavery issue and a backstory of incest and child molestation. She has made some major improvement to delineate the characters and their ulterior motives and altered what was once a half-baked tale of carnal lust, setting her new story on a slow simmer. All traces of pulp have been removed and the film slowly, sometimes too slowly, percolate in its own juices. No longer an overly melodramatic tale of unbridled passion, her historical drama is a re-imagined world where willful spinsters and manly scoundrels thrives. Ms. Coppola’s film version focuses on the manipulation of the male upon the female rather than the reversal of this premise. These ladies take female empowerment to a whole other level.

    Colin Farrell plays John McBurney, a wounded Union soldier. Found bloody, handsome, and weaken, he is taken to Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies to recover from his injuries. The war raging outside its gate seems like a mere afterthought compared to the battle-lines that are soon drawn inside this less-stately mansion.

    As John is nursed back to health, he begins to bond with this brood and uses his sexuality to his own advantage. The place is a hothouse of wanton desires and sexual tension as the ladies ogle and obsess about this hunk of man-bait, although Miss Farnsworth (a superb Nicole Kidman) will have none of that behavior under her roof. After all, there must be a price to be paid for illicit sex and sinful thoughts. Vengance has its sweet reward, or does it?

    Farrell is perfectly cast. His interpretation of McBurney is more sexual predator than victim. He knowingly acts to charm and “beguile” his female prey. Those objects of desire include Alicia (Eli Fanning), a lusty teenage Lolita, Edwina (Kristin Dunst), who may or may not be his true love, Amy (Oona Laurence), a sweet innocent child who soon realizes that evil does exist in this world, and Miss Farnsworth herself. The acting is solid throughout, especially Ms. Kidman who plays the pious headmistress caught in a power struggle of conflicting emotions. From her subtle come-hither glances and nervous reactions in some scenes to deliberate controlled manipulation and righteous indignation in others, the actress creates a character whose words never are quite in sync with her actions. This keeps the audience guessing about her real motives throughout the film. The scenes involving her and Mr. Farrell serve to highlight the rivalry between their characters and up the ante of psychological suspense while downplaying some of the strained and palpable sexual tension.

    Ms. Coppola directs with authority and skillfully ratchets up the tension. She painstakingly shows the mundane aspects of 19th century life and leisurely shows that period with memorable images that help to establish her characters and the era with where they survived (a close-up of a child’s treasure trove of inanimate objects, wisps of cannons’ black smoke in the distance against a dusk sky, scenes of proper ladylike behavior from evening prayer groups to classes on proper etiquette). There is such poetic clarity in her vision which makes her film all the more compelling.

    Production values are high. Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography is stunning. His use of candle-lit corridors and shadowy corners add to the overall atmosphere of this Gothic house of horror. Lovely period costumes by Stacey Battat add that subtle touch of Southern genteel respectability and the dissonant music score by Phoenix feeds into its penny dreadful material source.

    The film is all romantic notions turned on its head and sexual restraint stretched to the limits. It hides the pulp beneath its splendid veneer with Ms. Coppola’s strong direction and the fine acting from its cast. The moviegoer remains involved from the start. The Beguiled does just that and more.

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