Saturday, July 15, 2017

'The Beguiled' review

Sofia Coppola is one of the most powerful female filmmakers on the global stage, and she's also one of the most important voices in American independent cinema. When she makes a new film, people pay attention. After being stuck in the shadow of her famous family for years, mostly due to her role in The Godfather Part III, Coppola burst onto the indie scene with 1999's The Virgin Suicides and never looked back. In 2003, her biggest hit arrived in the form of Lost in Translation, which won her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and put her firmly on the map as an indie auteur. In the years since, Coppola has devoted her time to making films that fit her distinct style and interests, and that has proven to be a divisive strategy. Coppola hasn't had a universally acclaimed movie since her Oscar-winning effort, but for her fans, that hasn't been a problem. Coppola has an incredibly loyal base, and they've been out in force to pump up The Beguiled, the director's first film in four years and her first remake.

The Beguiled is a re-imagining of the 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle, this time told distinctly from the female perspective.  And despite its origins as a novel and as a 70s classic, this rendition very much feels like the singular work of a director like Sofia Coppola. It's slow and luxurious, bathing in its Southern style and allowing the inner lives and desires of its characters to be put under a microscope. It's atmospheric, juggling sexual tension and the threat of violence as the narrative and jealousy and betrayal progresses. And it's full of tremendous performances, led by the immaculate trio of Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, and enhanced by a cleverly nuanced turn from Colin Farrell. And yet, for all of its incredible acting and sumptuous production values, something feels missing from The Beguiled. Maybe it's the lack of forward momentum, maybe it's the fact that it seems too restrained in the wrong places, but Coppola's otherwise deliciously entertaining period piece falls just short of greatness. It's a feast for the senses, but you just can't help but want a little more.

Set three years into the Civil War, The Beguiled is set at a school for girls in Virginia. The slaves have left (a line that has prompted a wide variety of thinkpieces), and it's just Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and her girls. One day while picking mushrooms in the mossy woods around the school, Amy (Oona Laurence) makes a shocking discovery- an injured union soldier (Colin Farrell), slumped against a tree. He says his name is Corporal John McBurney, and Amy offers to help him back to the school. Once at the plantation, McBurney immediately becomes the most popular topic of conversation among the girls. In addition to Miss Martha, he attracts the attention of Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), a teacher who has deeply repressed her sexuality, and Alicia (Elle Fanning), a schoolgirl who practically throws herself at him. McBurney also attracts the sympathy of the younger girls at the school, and they all convince Martha to keep him around. But as his seductive techniques become more apparent, the rivalry between the girls becomes more pronounced and the betrayals stack up. And let's just say that things don't end well from there.

The Beguiled may have some flaws that I'll discuss later, but there's no question that this is flat-out one of the most gorgeous movies of the year. This movie practically exists as a middle finger to anyone who thinks that all period pieces are stuffy and drab (this is a group that includes myself). It's sexy and sultry and sumptuously crafted, and the tastefulness with which everything is done only makes it that much more compelling. The cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd captures the atmospheric intensity of the 19th century with both subtlety and a delightful flair, alternating between a rich moodiness and decadent images. The same can be said for the production and costume design by Anne Ross and Stacey Battat, respectively. The design elements manage to be both muted and delicious, chaste but hopelessly seductive, perfectly representing the contrast at the heart of this movie. Coppola puts the puzzle together with ease, resulting in a film that is an absolute feast for the senses. You sink into The Beguiled- you can practically feel this movie around you at every moment.

This is a film that also features some of the most sensational performances of the year, and despite the failings of Coppola's screenplay, she develops these characters in an expert fashion. There's no clear lead, but I guess one could say that Nicole Kidman is the anchor of the cast. She gives a strong performance as a character who is represented more by what she doesn't do than what she does, an interesting twist that allows for Kidman to do some really fascinating stuff. She's an intricate web of composure and good Southern manners- oh, and repressed sexuality too. She's the most ruthless character in the film, and also the most unpredictably compelling. It's a tough role to pull off, but Kidman does a magnificent job. She's matched in deeply held discontent by Kirsten Dunst, who plays the most easily tricked member of the group. Dunst's Edwina Morrow is a thoroughly depressed individual, and you can't help but feel a little bad for her. Dunst communicates almost entirely through body language, allowing you to understand exactly what's going on in Edwina's mind without any explicit confirmation. She has the most tragic arc of the story, and it really works.

But no actress is as fun to watch as Elle Fanning, who gives Alicia a breathy southern charm that makes you respond with laughter and shock. Alicia is the most brazen about her burgeoning sexuality, and there's not a hint of repression in her relentless pursuit of McBurney. Fanning impressed me all the way back in 2011's Super 8, but with this, The Neon Demon, and 20th Century Women, she's quickly emerging as one of the best young actresses working today. To round out the supporting cast, Oona Laurence and Angourie Rice have significantly less to do, but they're both spectacular in their own right. And of course, there's Colin Farrell, who is truly outstanding as the seductive soldier. Farrell knows how to hit the right note in each scene, and the tension created by him and the main trio of actresses is sensational.

The Beguiled is a true chamber piece, with almost all of the action taking place within the confines of Miss Martha's school. On the surface, this film really works best as a stage play- limited locations, straight-forward scenes, actor-y performances. But it's Coppola's ability to make it astonishingly cinematic that emerges as the most notable aspect of this handsome production. Coppola takes a film that could be stiff and bland and elevates it to a kind of arthouse beauty that overcomes the inherent visual constraints of the story. But there's only one problem left- the story itself. The Beguiled is an interesting film to watch and a masterclass in acting, but it's not a dramatically engaging one, and while I know she was working with adapted material, that blame shifts to Coppola herself.

There are lots of things that work in The Beguiled. I think the darkly funny ending is great. I think the banter between the characters builds tension to a certain degree. I think that some of the twists pay off nicely. But there's a restraint to Coppola's storytelling that doesn't pay off, and even though The Beguiled is set in the mannered, prim and proper world of the Confederacy, the film always seems afraid of embracing the true nature of its story. I remember when the first trailer for this came out, many were saying that this would be Coppola working in pure genre mode. And you can see this film dipping its toes into horror and exploitative territory, but Coppola seems to be resisting that at every turn. Even when things get really crazy towards the final act, there's still the sense that she's holding back. And ultimately, this means that the movie lacks punch. It doesn't have that knockout scene that sends audiences into a fit, nor does it have an escalating sense of dread that boils over into madness. Its impact is muted by the nature of its storytelling, and that is the most disappointing aspect of an otherwise gorgeously made film.

I'm probably being a little too hard on The Beguiled, mostly because I feel it was so close to being a truly great film. But at 94 minutes and with an approach to the story that just doesn't quite work, Coppola's sixth feature falls just short of the mark. And yet there's still so much to love in this spectacularly designed period piece. Even if she can't quite pull off a tricky narrative and tonal balancing act, Coppola does deliver one of the most beautiful films in recent memory, and every performance in the movie is top-notch. The Beguiled is a mesmerizing visual experience, and while the payoff doesn't live up to the rest of the film, you'll surely want to witness this delightfully grim thriller. It's a fun ride that could have been so much more.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.1/10)

Images courtesy of Focus Features

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