A film review by Craig J. Koban October 24, 2017

THE BEGUILED  jjj
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2017, R, 91 mins.

 

Colin Farrell as John McBurney  /  Nicole Kidman as Martha Farnsworth  /  Kirsten Dunst as Edwina Dabney  /  Elle Fanning as Alicia  /  Angourie Rice as Jane  /  Oona Laurence as Amy  /  Addison Riecke as Marie  /  Wayne Pére as Captain  /  Emma Howard as Emily

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, based on the book by Thomas Cullinan

 

 

 

Over a decade ago I sincerely thought that Sophia Coppola would become one of the most creatively distinguished filmmakers of her generation whose films would eventually rival the high predigree body of work of the early career of her very famous father.  Early examples like the hauntingly dreamlike THE VIRGIN SUICIDES and later ones like the potently acted LOST IN TRANSLATION hinted at more future greatness to come, but then came crushing artistic disappointments like MARIE ANTOINETTE and, most recently, THE BLING RING that all but derailed my enthusiasm for her work.   

THE BEGUILED, rather thankfully, is a most welcoming return to form for the Oscar nominated director (she's still only the third woman in history to achieve such an honor), and after relatively failing with a few wrongheaded - but nevertheless boldly ambitious - films, Coppola seems to have found her long lost artistic footing.  

This latest period film from her is compelling on multiple fronts: (a) It's an intriguingly scripted remake of the well known 1971 Don Siegel directed/Clint Eastwood starring film of the same name (based in turn on a book of the same name by Thomas P. Cullinan); (b) it's briskly told at a smooth and well paced 91 minutes (much shorter than the original); and (c) it changes the character focal points from its antecedent and becomes a much more intoxicating study of repressed sexual norms and how the intrusion of one mysterious man can act as an unhealthy catalyst to capsize the relative harmonious existence of a group of women.  Beyond that, Coppola films THE BEGUILED with a lush and painterly eye for compositions and crafts a meticulously well rendered slow burn narrative that segues from period drama to romance film and ultimately to a Southern Gothic horror film that takes audiences well outside of the previous established comfort zone.   

 

 

I guess on a simplistic level THE BEGUILED could be best described as a Civil War era drama about outwardly elegant and refined, but inwardly flawed and vulnerable women that have their quiet, locked away lives disrupted by a mortally injured, but duplicitous motivated man.  Yet, that somewhat does Coppola's densely compacted themes here a bit of disservice, seeing as there's multiple layers of intrigue well beneath its surface.  The film takes place in Civil War Virginia and introduces us to a young girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), that stumbles on injured Union solider Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) while picking mushrooms near her girl's school.  He pleads with her for assistance, which she begrudgingly obliges and helps him back to the school, which society has ostensibly abandoned outside of the woman that still occupy it.  Besides Amy, the other students living there are Alicia (Elle Fanning), Jane (Angourie Rice), Marie (Addison Riecke), and Emily (Emma Howard), all of which are under the guidance of one teacher, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and the school's headmistress, Martha (Nicole Kidman). 

Predictably, Martha is deeply upset by Amy bringing back an injured man to their isolated home, not to mention a Union soldier.  She initially wants to turn him over to the Confederate army, but decides that before she does that she'll tend to his horrific wounds to ensure he doesn't die on her front porch.  John does manage to slowly mend himself back to health, but it soon becomes apparent to him that his only hope in staying at the school and avoiding being turned into the Union is his ability to cultivate strategic friendships with the woman to ensure his overall survival.  Creepily, he begins a slow and methodical scheme to win over and seduce all of them using various deceptive means, but Martha begins to see that this man's once congenial facade is but a mere mask that hides his true intentions, which springs her into action. 

Visually, THE BEGUILED reminded me a lot of Stanley Kubrick's BARRY LYNDON in the sense that both are beautifully rendered historical films that create an undeniably potent sense of rich atmosphere from the its multiple sun and candle light drench shots that really do effortlessly transport us to a different time and place.  Coppola wisely doesn't infuse much color into the film (sans vibrant, neon hued and romanticized title cards) and instead paints the screen with hazy darkness throughout.  Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd's eye favors stillness throughout, which also greatly benefits Coppola's restrained approach to the material.  The production and costume design on display are also categorically stunning, all which have a sweeping sense of elegant ambience while helping to foster the claustrophobic atmosphere of the school.  So much of THE BEGUILED feels sumptuously inviting, yet mysteriously foreboding at the same time.  This not only might be Coppola's most opulently shot film, but it's also one of the best looking films of the year...period. 

Coppola isn't just preoccupied with quarterbacking a pretty looking film, though, as she displays an obsessive precision with constructing scene after scene that gradually builds unease and nail biting tension in unexpected ways.  Early on we feel a sense of overt security in being with these characters in a massive home in the middle of nowhere and well beyond the ravages of the Civil War, but that later gives way to the horrifying predicaments that her characters find themselves in during the story's nightmarish final act.  There's been some controversy that has tainted Coppola's approach to adapting the source material, such as accusations of white washing the cast with her excluding a black female slave that was present in Cullinan's book.  To be fair, Coppola's adaptation is a very loosely faithful one at best and is not really looking to explore race politics of the era.  Her BEGUILED is more about the Svengali-like seduction of innocent women and how they must conspire together to survive and thwart such unwanted advances from a man they hardly know. 

That's ultimately what made THE BEGUILED so thoroughly enthralling for me: It's really a study of repressed sexual frustration and unease and how John senses that and uses it to his own twisted advantage to gain the upper hand on all of the women.  The brilliance of Farrell's extremely tricky performance is that he never overtly telegraphs his character's true intentions from the get-go and instead keeps us tantalizingly guessing.  John may be bed ridden for most of the film's running time and in a physical place of vulnerability, but he patiently exacts a level of convincing power over the school's women that's unnerving to the core.  And John, best of all, is never presented as a one note, moustache swirling villain of easy contempt; he's layered and more complex for how he's never overtly presented as a predatory fiend.  This is a man that's fighting for survival on multiple fronts that commands a reasonable amount of empathy early on because of his fragile wounded state, but as Coppola twists and plunges the story down some decidedly dark corners this man's real heart of darkness reveals itself, and Farrell evokes that with surgical exactitude.   

The women that populate THE BEGUILED are just as well rounded and fascinating, especially Kidman's headmistress that has to project a steely eyed and unwavering authority with her girls that also finds her emotional guards breaking down with John's advances by the day.  Fanning is also superb playing a tightly wound teenager that's fighting her baser impulses to be reserved and innocent with the appearance of John, who propels her sexual awakening, albeit in deplorably manipulative ways.  The real standout in THE BEGUILED is Kirsten Dunst's Oscar nomination worthy turn as her young educator and achingly melancholic soul that finds herself more romantically driven to John than any other of her female housemates...and her inward resistance to such impulses only imbues her character with added layers of soul crushing heartache; she's never been so quietly powerful in a film. 

It could be easily argued that THE BEGUILED careens towards a shocking finale that's a bit too over the top when compared to the relatively well oiled and modulated approach of the opening two thirds of the film that preceded it.  Maybe Coppola never does earn the massive tonal shifts the narrative hurtles us through, which leaves the final twenty minutes or so of THE BEGUILED feeling a tad rushed.  Yet, there's simply no denying that Coppola has painstakingly fashioned a routinely handsome period production that's also quite powerfully performed and achieves a level of character and thematic complexity that draws us more intimately inwards as the story progresses.  There's also a refreshingly old school aesthetic sensibility on cunning display here, which helps propel THE BEGUILED up and above most other routine and perfunctory remakes that feel like they're on autopilot.  Best of all is that Coppola has reached for the greatness that punctuated her early directorial career...and has seems to have re-captured it.  

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