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Saturday, July 08, 2017

The Beguiled

Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled is easy to admire, but a bit harder to enjoy.  With its beautiful, dream-like images and first-rate performances, it's easy to see why the film won Coppola the award for Best Director at Cannes.  But at its very center, the screenplay is emotionally cold and distant, and it suffers from a severe tonal shift from atmospheric drama to lurid melodrama in the last half.  Even the film's climax, which should be filled with dread, feels somehow empty and unsatisfying.

The film is based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan, and was filmed earlier back in 1971 with Clint Eastwood in the role of a wounded Civil War soldier who finds himself under the care of some lovely and potentially treacherous Southern ladies.  I have neither read the book nor seen the earlier film, so I can't comment how closely this new version follows the earlier attempts at the story.  All I can say is that I can see what Coppola is going for here.  She has crafted a laid back, beautiful drama where atmosphere is the key component.  But then, during the last half, that atmosphere is stripped away for over the top potboiler thrills.  Perhaps this is how the story is supposed to play out, but as a filmmaker, Coppola seems more comfortable with the quiet aspects of the story, rather than the over the top later elements.  I wouldn't say that the tonal shift completely stops the film, but it does lessen the effectiveness of what came before.

Colin Farrell has the role of the Union soldier in this film, Corporal John McBurney, who finds himself in the woods of Virginia and near death after a battle when he is discovered by a small girl named Amy (Oona Laurence), who is in the forest collecting mushrooms when she finds him.  Amy is scared of him at first, but he is quickly able to make her warm up to him, and take him back to the girls' school where she is currently residing.  Because of the war, the school is largely empty, with only a few students living and studying within.  The other four students include Alicia (Elle Fanning), Jane (Angourie Rice), Marie (Addison Riecke), and Emily (Emma Howard).  There is also the teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and the headmistress of the school, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman).  When Amy arrives with the wounded John, many of the girls are upset that a Yankee has been brought to their home, but Martha eventually feels that it is their Christian duty to keep him within the school hidden away and nurse him back to health.  As John stays within the walls of the school, he quickly realizes that he must befriend these young women if he wants to remain safe, and so he sets about seducing the women in various ways, or showing them his interest and special attention.

For most of The Beguiled, I don't think we are supposed to be sure if John is truly interested in these women, or if he is using them in order to avoid them turning him over to the Confederate Army.  He does strike up the biggest relationship with the lonely teacher Edwina, who dreams of leaving her current home far behind and seeing the world.  There is a certain subtlety to the film's seductive power that I found myself captivated by, and the performance by Dunst as Edwina is truly heartbreaking at times.  We can sense how she sees John as a way to a better life, and how she also falls for him completely the more time she spends around him.  With its laid-back tone and captivating imagery, I was more than willing to surrender to the almost fantastical tone that Coppola was creating.  But, at some point during the last half hour, the movie takes a sharp turn in a completely other direction, and the movie's spell was quickly broken.

I had seen the trailers for the film, so I certainly was not surprised by what was to come.  More I was disappointed by the film's sudden turn to almost unintentionally comical melodrama.  When Farrell starts ranting and raving, and the women start slyly plotting, it begins to hold all the subtlety of a daytime soap opera, just more seductively shot.  Maybe the switch in tone to the story was not handled well by Coppola, or perhaps this is a problem that has plagued the story from the beginning in its earlier cinematic telling.  I'm actually kind of curious to discover the answer, and see if the earlier film suffers from the same tonal shift.  Whatever the case, the movie loses much of its power during the last act, and it's enough for me to be somewhat disappointed with the final result.

I would label The Beguiled as a near-miss that starts out elegantly, but just can't hold onto the quiet power that the first hour or so seems to be building.  When the final moments come, they're also not as powerful as we would expect.  There's just something curiously muted.  The climax is supposed to leave us somewhat chilled, but I felt rather lukewarm about the experience as a whole.

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