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‘The Beguiled’ (review)

Produced by Youree Henley, Sofia Coppola
Based on A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan
Adapted and Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman,
Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning

 

There are so many thing from the 70s that would not be served by an update: mood rings, pet rocks, and lava lamps. What made Sophia Coppola feel that a less famous Clint Eastwood film would be appropriate for a redo?

While we may never know for sure, the result is a muddled period piece fairy tale of the dangers lurking under the graces of these cloistered ladies.

Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is an injured Union soldier who finds himself at an all-female Southern boarding school begging for help and shelter as he recovers from wounds obtained as a deserter.

Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and her small brood of well-bred girls help as they can while he recovers. When McBurney heals and is drawn closer to the dowdy Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) emotions flare and loyalties are tested.

This movie may have succeeded if not for an awareness of the source material. Given the pulpy, sexy, murdery movie it comes from this feels as if someone laced a bodice too tight around the script. Though scenes of McBurney flirting with the older girls run from explicit to tongue-in-cheek, there is always a restraint past what the period requires. It hangs like humidity over the entire film and takes away from a lot of the fun that could have been brought over from the original.

In general, it watches like a strange and sad children’s story of warning against temptation; as if McBurney were Snow White stumbling upon 6 female dwarves who get up each day to mine gentility instead of ore. It is suffice to say that Nicole Kidman has never met a period piece she did not like, or did not like her. It is nothing new for her to weave intensity with reserve and succeed wonderfully, but as she is so well-practiced it can be a bit boring to see. One might forget if they are watching the stern mother from The Others or the character at hand, so similar is her approach. Elle Fanning may be falling into a trope of saucy innocent after her piece in Live by Night, which has faint echoes here. With that said, she still turns in a lovely performance and will not be anything but helped by being in this film. Kirsten Dunst has terrific range but seeing her as a sad sack character was at times more interesting as a study of the actress rather than actually engaging in terms of the plot.

The setting is more breathtaking than haunting, though there are echoes of the ghosts of better times throughout the old hallways. The peeling mansion sits on a sleepy but beautiful estate with sweeping canopies covered in Spanish moss and dappled sunlight across the grass. The detail given both to the worn and soft upper class dresses of the women, their clean but functional hairstyles, and the tarnished wealth of the set dressings give a full story of the occupants’ previous grandeur. It also gives unspoken depth to the relationship between Kidman and the girls. Who else would know from what heights they had already fallen save for the woman who protected them through all of it? Who else is more deserving of trust and devotion?

Sophia Coppola does not exist to push the envelope so much as softly and seductively pull it open with a particularly feminine slant. Because of that, her remake The Beguiled is less raunchy and less brutal than the original male-helmed version. This does not change the main driver of the movie, which is that the presence and potential attention from a man apparently undoes much of the sense of sisterhood that occurs in their absence, though man’s wickedness is also a driver for a united front.

The Beguiled is in no way a feminist movie, but if you are looking for a restrained period piece with a catfight or two played out as a battle of will and principles, Coppola has your number.

 

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