Movie Review – The Beguiled
Sofia Coppola has written and directed this visually beautiful story of sexual female suppression in the Civil War South. Based on both the novel (Thomas Cullinan) and the original screenplay (Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp), it is the story of a wounded Union soldier who is taken in by a small girls’ school as the war between the states rages all around them. Colin Farrell plays the hapless soldier Corporal John McBurny, who from the very first image; slumped up against a tree, in uniform, with a nasty leg full of shrapnel, looks a bit like a wounded puppy that you cannot resist helping. He is found and escorted back to the school, by one of the youngest girls, Amy (Oona Laurence). The headmistress, a buttoned-up, in control Nicole Kidman (Miss Martha) decides to treat McBurny’s leg and allow him to stay as long as it takes him to heal. When healed Miss Martha and the rest of the school, which by this time in the war, only includes one teacher Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and five girls, decide that McBurny must be returned to war or turned over to Confederate soldiers.
Of course, once sequestered and stashed into a bedroom, McBurny, becomes an object of curiosity and fixation with all the women and girls. They surreptitiously pop in for visits and each seem to form their own clandestine and unique connection. These relationships vary from older brother, father figure, adolescent confidante, and hopeful paramour and from innocence to simmering lust. Apparently McBurny raises temperatures in the oldest student, Alicia (Elle Fanning) and Edwina and Miss Martha, although how clear this is in this muted drama is incredibly subjective.
The Beguiled, which is actually a remake of a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood as McBurny has a definite art house, indie look and feel; however this shouldn’t exempt it from drama and emotional involvement. It is too subtle and muted, and although beautiful to look at it, isn’t very effective at raising the audience’s temperature, or interest for that matter. The sexual suppression of the women is so suppressed that it creates yawns from the audience. The jealousy and rage that prompts its second act curtain's violent incident seems unearned and a late attempt to raise an eyebrow. By then my eyebrows had permanently checked out. When the “suppression” is actually consummated there is very little satisfaction at all. I expected to hear Peggy Lee singing “Is That All There Is” on the soundtrack.
Perhaps part of the problem is the casting. Farrell is certainly a looker, but his appeal is that of vulnerability, warmth and sensitivity. He doesn’t look physically imposing enough and doesn’t seem dangerous. This combined with his injured, helpless state don’t create enough tension. Eastwood, looks and feels dangerous in the original. His size, his small eyed glances and his voice, which always make you think he is not saying something bad or dirty that he is actually thinking, make him an alluring threat; even while hoping around on crutches. Whether it is Farrell’s interpretation of the character, or Coppola’s direction, the situation just doesn’t have the weight, the humidity or the desire to give the film the subtext or yearning it needs. Still, it looks gorgeous.