Reviews, Screen

The Beguiled movie review

| |

Sofia Coppola, a painterly director if ever there was one, eschews the complexity of the “real world” for a curated narrative frame. She did this with the sumptuous spaces of the Tokyo Park Hyatt in Lost in Translation (a perfect film), with the American suburbs in The Virgin Suicides and with Versailles in Marie Antoinette.

In The Beguiled, a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film, the portrait is a plantation house in Virginia, formerly a girls’ boarding school run by the imperious Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman). The Civil War rages in the distance with the boom of canons and the occasional appearance of a confederate soldier, but the more important context here is the swirling mist and dripping vines of the gone-to-seed garden and the refinements of the interior now going to rack and ruin.
Sofia Coppola has established tropes, as all artists invariably and often unconsciously do, once they have produced enough for their sub-conscious to build their maps. These creative repetitions are as evident in the editorial choices of the camera frame (shot in this case by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd) as in the preoccupations of theme which replay again and again. As in Lost in Translation’s paradoxical Tokyo where tradition rubs up against technological futurism, the external world of The Beguiled is in crisis: the slaves and servants are gone, a new order is emerging on the battle-field.

But our characters are sequestered in both the dilapidated architecture of the house and in Coppola’s narrative architecture where the world ‘out there’ plays only a bit part and all is focussed on the internal rumblings of a familiarly becoming female troupe.

The sense of historical constraints fraying at the edges of adolescent sexuality are not nearly Coppola-esque enough.

Once again, as in her previous films, Coppola plays with the notion of freedom and imprisonment. Is the house a prison shielding them from real life and real freedom or is it a protective bunker, a last gasp of control and civility in an uncivilised world? Certainly the last remaining students, hot-house blooms tended to by Miss Martha and her repressed assistant Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), are required to camouflage their erotic evolution in lady-like decorum. Needlework and French verbs jostle with frilly white underwear and flushed cheeks.

Into this feminine quarantine comes a wounded Yankee soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell in Clint Eastwood’s original role), whose fate is in their hands. Miss Martha must decide whether to call for help and thereby betray him or tend to his wounds. Under Miss Edwina’s influence, she resolves to stitch him up and let him recuperate, but even at this early stage we know that he is the cat and they are the pigeons, even if they are pigeons who want to be chased.

The ensuing flirtations and manipulations make up the narrative and they are entertaining enough with a collection of characters played by the winsome cast, the spirited Miss Amy (Oona Laurence), the opinionated Miss Jane (the talented Australian actress Angourie Rice), the tender Miss Emily (Emma Howard) and the languorous tease Miss Alicia (Elle Fanning). Alternating between desire and terror, the girls sneak into the soldier’s room, provoking and exciting both him and themselves in the process. It’s a tremulous dance that with Coppola’s anorexic script, never quite holds the tension capably enough.

Coppola’s minimalist approach to language and undecided grasp of the main narrative thread gives the actors too little to play with and the audience too little to care about. The sense of historical constraints fraying at the edges of adolescent sexuality are not nearly Coppola-esque enough.

Coppola has been criticised for avoiding all mention of the slaves – a ridiculous expression of political correctness if ever there was one.

The epiphanic thread of Miss Edwina’s conflicted tug towards both the soldier’s charms and her employer, Kidman’s purse-lipped Miss Martha, has a slightly deflated resolution. Although there feels in this corseted sensuality at least a whiff of the influence of Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Beguiled is less beguiling than Peter Weir’s treatment of partially comparable territory.

In this and throughout the film, Coppola’s vision – customarily a masterpiece of nuance, feminine sexuality and mood — feels undernourished. When Edwina makes her choice between the past and the future, between heart and head – it does not carry the suspense or narrative punch is has promised. The playful competition between the girls is similarly underdeveloped and the audience is left with the sense that more fun might have been had.

I didn’t much like Kidman’s performance – all ticks and arch mannerisms – but she does play the comedy adeptly. Dunst, as usual, feels more in Coppola’s camp – broody and subtle, fittingly allowing us to guess more than be spoon-fed by her performance. These two actresses seem to represent an uncertainty in the filmmaker about what story she wants to tell – a comic yarn or another evocative meditation on female potency and complexity.

Coppola has been criticised for avoiding all mention of the slaves – a ridiculous expression of political correctness if ever there was one. We don’t ask the makers of the Bourne movies to meditate on the real-politik of global politics or the makers of The Slap to dwell on the indigenous realities on the fringes of the Australian middle-class experience.

It is the filmmaker’s prerogative to choose the degree to which her story engages with historical realities. There is no onus and if there were one, artists would be ideologically strait-jacketed, their muses saboutaged. Their narratives would flounder around inside intellectual decision-making, surrendering their imaginative oomph.

The real criticism of The Beguiled should focus on how well the story Coppola chooses to tell is told. On this score, this brilliant director has short-changed both herself and us.

3 responses to “The Beguiled movie review

  1. I understood that the criticism of the white directors choices were to delete one back character and make one black person in the original story a white person. The white director is on record as making films about ‘her’ people. Lots of white people make films about white people. Just like lots of white critics review white films for white people. So there is no problem, right?

  2. While it’s clear you’re a Sophia Coppola fan, and you have written an intelligent review of The Beguiled, my daughter and I did not find the writing ‘anorexic’. Like most other Coppola films, we were charmed by ‘The Beguiled’ and enjoyed rich conversation with others after our viewing. A student of Southern Gothic literature, she knew the axe would play a significant role in the demise of the soldier when he first wielded it in the tangled garden. And the ‘Apple Pie’ dialogue was ingenious. Thanks Connie for your review – we agree with your summary of 20th Century Women and that’s the whole fun of watching films and responding isn’t it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *