Friday, June 30, 2017

The Beguiled: Not beguiling enough

The Beguiled (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, and rather harshly, for fleeting sexuality

By Derrick Bang

As a setting, Southern Gothic is a character in its own right: drooping, moss-draped trees enclosing antebellum mansions, their white paint edged with gray and slightly peeling; a keening, high-pitched whine of insects driven into a constant frenzy by shimmering heat; the miasma of humidity so unrelenting that everything — flora, fauna and dwellings — sags beneath a soggy layer of warm moisture, and the mere act of drawing breath is a weary challenge.

Sensing that Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) is self-conscious about her appearance,
McBurney (Colin Farrell) lavishes praise about her features and deportment, knowing
full well that she'll melt under such flattery.
A sense that evil spirits prowl during a night so enveloping that stars and fireflies do little to keep the darkness at bay.

Director/scripter Sofia Coppola’s fresh adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s The Beguiled certainly wins points for atmosphere. Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd frames every inch of production designer Anne Ross’ tableaus — interior and exterior — with the reverence of a painter agonizing over each individual brush stroke.

The characters in this unsettling morality play also are well cast, with Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell delivering a level of quiet intensity more frequently experienced with a live Broadway performance. Which also feels appropriate, given that the story’s claustrophobic setting could be realized equally well on a theater stage.

Coppola directs her cast with a sure hand, coaxing performances that fascinate just as much for their protracted silences, as for carefully selected snatches of dialog. Kidman, in particular, conveys a wealth of emotion during moments of circumspect silence.

If only Coppola’s script equaled the rest of her film’s carefully assembled elements.

The tale unfolds in 1864, midway through the Civil War, within the confines of the Farnsworth Seminary, a Southern girls’ boarding school nestled deep in the Virginia woods. The institution is run by Miss Martha (Kidman) and her colleague Edwina (Dunst); they share classroom instruction and the daily reading of prayers.

The student population has dwindled to five, all girls with nowhere else to go. Amy (Oona Laurence), Jane (Angourie Rice), Marie (Addison Riecke) and Emily (Emma Howard) are adolescent, vulnerable and trusting; teenage Alicia (Elle Fanning), hastening the onset of a womanhood she has no means of embracing, carries a whiff of temptress about her.

These seven have become a family, Miss Martha just as much a surrogate mother as a formal teacher. The dynamic, with its daily rituals, feels timeless; they may have sheltered in this vast mansion for mere months, or perhaps years. (The action actually takes place at the Louisiana-based Madewood Plantation House, also borrowed by Beyoncé for her “Sorry” music video.)

The carefully structured environment shatters one morning, when Amy, foraging for mushrooms and other edibles, stumbles across Corporal McBurney (Farrell), a badly wounded Union soldier suspiciously absent from his regiment. The girl is startled but not scared; he’s in considerable pain but nevertheless courteous.

She helps him back to Farnsworth, where Miss Martha’s first impulse is to hang a blue cloth on the school gate, alerting the next passing Confederate unit to collect a prisoner of war. But Amy, a kind-hearted girl inclined to make pets of birds and turtles, objects on the grounds of Christian charity: Surely it would be more compassionate to first heal his damaged leg, and make him fit for travel.

Miss Martha acquiesces, suggesting that this is a God-sent opportunity to test their kindness, and perhaps see the individual human being concealed beneath the nebulous “enemy” designation of his “blue-belly” uniform. But something else — a stirring, of sorts — flickers behind Miss Martha’s eyes, as she makes this statement. Alicia catches it; the others do not.

The complexity of Miss Martha’s response to this visitor climaxes a bit later, after she stitches McBurney’s wound, the pain driving him into unconsciousness. Edwina assists during this spontaneous nursing, but then — after an abrupt edit — Miss Martha is alone with the oblivious man, having stripped him to his shorts, in order to bathe him.

What follows is the film’s strongest scene, thanks to the astonishing delicacy of Kidman’s performance. We see a wealth of emotions flicker across her face, as Miss Martha approaches this task with a blend of revulsion, stoic determination and — as she guides the washcloth southward — curiosity, apprehension and breath-catching awareness. Of the very essence of him, and her intimate proximity.

The story draws its subsequent dramatic tension from the expanding length of McBurney’s “short stay.” Farrell, his Irish charm at full throttle, coaxes, cajoles and connives his way into the good graces — if not the actual hearts — of each woman in turn, regardless of age. The prissy Jane, insisting that he should be turned over to “our boys,” is the toughest challenge; even she eventually succumbs.

McBurney becomes the proverbial fox in the henhouse, perceptive enough to play to each of his new companions’ weaknesses or vanities. Miss Martha soon regards him as a cultured equal; Amy believes that he shares her interest in wildlife. The reserved Edwina, long unsure of her own beauty, melts beneath his compliments. Alicia simply can’t wait to kiss him (and, if she can figure out how to arrange it, much more).

But what happens next, happens much too quickly. I rarely believe that a film should run longer, but Coppola does herself no favors by limiting this saga to a needlessly hasty 93 minutes. Cullinan’s 1966 novel runs a leisurely 399 pages, depicting a passage of time that’s essential to our acceptance of the spider’s web of deceit, manipulation and rivalry that eventually rivens the Farnsworth Seminary’s carefully structured world.

But after spending an hour to carefully establish setting, characters and budding interactions, Coppola virtually ruins the mood by having McBurney overplay his hand too hastily. Indeed, the late-night betrayal — which prompts a fresh crisis — is uncharacteristically imprudent behavior for a man who, up to this point, has been so cautious, careful and crafty.

And, in that stroke, Coppola loses us. The story suddenly becomes contrived and unbelievable, even more so with a hastily constructed third act that feels like a race to the finish line. The 1971 adaptation — with Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman, directed by Don Siegel — is far more successful with its handling of build-up, climax and resolution.

All of which is a shame, because we exit the theater with this unsatisfying third act freshest in mind. Coppola thus squanders the carefully nurtured trust that we’ve given her, and — more tragically — undercuts the many fine performances. Dunst surrounds Edwina with a protective shell of inhibited vulnerability so brittle, that we genuinely worry that she might shatter at any moment, like a porcelain doll bumped from a shelf.

Fanning’s Alicia smolders with budding sexuality, her boldness subtly rising until she no longer fears being noticed by Miss Martha or the others. Fanning’s high-voltage smirk could power a good-sized city.

Laurence’s Amy is achingly sweet and naïve, her face always the first to contort into worry at the slightest hint of conflict. We sense, despite Amy being among the youngest, that she’s always the one who tries to maintain calm, or mend fences.

The other girls, while distinct, aren’t given much to do ... although Riecke also gives Marie expressive features, suggesting an effervescent nature that has yet to emerge.

Ultimately — sadly — Coppola fails to honor the first rule of a remake: There’s no point, if the new version doesn’t surpass, or at least equal, its predecessor. This new film’s strong, sensitive performances notwithstanding, it doesn’t come close to the creepy, disturbing and climactic impact of Eastwood’s version.

No comments:

Post a Comment