The Beguiled Entertains, But Be wary of the Hyperbole


Directed by Sofia Coppola
Focus Features, 94 minutes, R (sexual situations—should be PG-13)
★★★ ½

One reviewer called The Beguiled "a sexually charged feminist psychodrama." That, my friends, is what is known as hyperbole. The Beguiled is actually an easy-on-the-eye film that sports lovely tableaux and mannered performances punctuated by harrowing pivots, but it's only feminist if you define that term as females forced by circumstance to live without the company of men. It's best not to make this film more than it is: a diverting way to spend an hour and a half—nothing less and nothing more.

The Beguiled is based upon A Painted Devil, a 1966 novel by Thomas Culllin an, previously adapted to film in 1971 with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page in the lead roles. Sofia Coppola's remake is subtler, perhaps the reason why she recently took away the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. The year is 1863, and the Civil War rages with unrelenting fury in Virginia, where Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) struggles to keep open an academy for young women. In those days, a female academy was a glorified finishing school in which boarding students learned French and music alongside needlework, proper posture, religion, and manners. The overall goal was refinement and mastery of domestic skills, not training for wage earning professions. The war has disrupted normal routines, but Miss Farnsworth valiantly maintains high moral standards, even though her six remaining residents must till their own gardens, forage, and get by the best they can. Farnsworth continues to act as headmistress, supervisor of in-house teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and role model to an ill-matched group of students: maturing teen Alicia (Elle Fanning), the slightly younger Jane (Angourie Rice), and three youths: 13-year-old Marie (Addison Reicke), round-faced Emily (Emma Howard), and spunky 11-year-old Amy (Ooma Laurence).

Farnsworth succeeds in keep the war outside the academy's iron gates until Amy stumbles upon a badly wounded Union solider, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) while collecting mushrooms in the woods. Against her better judgment, Farnsworth allows McBurney to recuperate inside the school. It is here that Coppola shows a more deft hand than either Cullinan or Don Siegel, who directed the 1971 film. Instead of making a fox-in-the-henhouse antebellum horror film, Coppola allows her Beguiled to be more ambiguous.

Is McBurney the fox, or the hunted? It's clear that he encourages the growing affections of the school's three oldest women, but is he a silver-tongued devil or just an impulsive lad with poor impulse control? Kidman is terrific as Farnsworth, whom she plays with outward ice, but with hints of a mushy core. Dunst is also impressive as Edwina, a woman torn between respectability, desire, and the realization that, by 19th century standards, she's already an Old Maid. Farrell, whose past work has been uneven and occasionally prone to pretty boy preening, does a credible job of portraying McBurney with the right balance of charm, recklessness, and smarm. It's a good thing these three performances are topnotch, or Oona Laurence would have stolen the show; though she's just 11, she's already a force of nature. Oddly, Ms. Fanning—who usually dazzles—is the weak link in the ensemble. She is alluring and flirtatious, but altogether too modern in look, attitude, and even speech. (At one point she actually asks McBurney, "How's it going?")

Strong acting carries the film because, when it's all said and done, this is actually a very slight film. Even at just 94 minutes it feels stretched out. That's because it's an interior film in which personalities and circumstances will either mesh or not, and there are really only a few ways in which matters could be resolved. Coppola engages in a little padding. It is suggested that the war is winding down, though in the summer of 1863 it has nearly two years to go. There are discussions of shortages but, though the academy table lacks meat, there's plenty of food on the fine china, and a nicely apportioned wine cabinet to accompany it. And if you want to know why Virginia looks like it's in the Deep South, it's because it was filmed in Louisiana. Still, I'm glad Coppola avoided the excesses of her Marie Antoinette (2006) or the tedium of Somewhere (2010). The Beguiled is assuredly watchable, though it looks deeper and prettier than it actually is. Best Director? That seems as hyperbolic as calling The Beguiled a feminist film. At its best, a strong ensemble cast takes over; when it lags, it's like having all that Spanish moss hanging from trees in what is supposed to be Virginia—more atmospheric than convincing.

Rob Weir 


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