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Beguiled, The (2017)
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by Jay Seaver

"Beguiling, but not quite seductive."
3 stars

Sofia Coppola's take on "The Beguiled" is beautiful, manages a slow burn without ever getting bloated, and features a fine cast doing good work. And yet, it makes me want to say "and yet…" Coppola often seems content to run her fingers along the surface of what's going on here, enjoying the texture, but seems reluctant to get in close when there's ugliness that could be on display, not when there's a lovely veneer to put over it.

The action takes place in 1864; the American Civil War has been going on for three years, and it has left Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and her convent/school rather short on pupils, with just five girls plus teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) still staying at her family's manse. Amy (Oona Laurence) is the one who finds Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) while looking for mushrooms in the woods. He panicked and ran when he first encountered combat, but still managed to catch a bullet. Amy brings him back to the school, where the women and girls agree to let him recuperate before turning him over to the Rebel soldiers, although having a man about after so long on their own can't help but awaken feelings long-dormant for Martha and Edwina and relatively new for the adolescents, with Alicia (Elle Fanning), would would probably be considered old enough to marry back home, especially aware of what she hadn't realized was missing from her life.

There's a temptation to regard this school as Edenic, with the introduction of sex leading to its downfall, but it's perhaps telling that the school is referred to as a convent more than once. These women were already sequestering themselves from men - they are, at times, as worried that the Confederate soldiers will appropriate their supplies as they are about threats from the Union - which makes the isolation fascinating to examine: The almost-uniformly white clothing becomes an assertion of purity rather than a symbol of it, and the thick-canopied forest doesn't quite mean that exterior scenes feel like they're indoors, but it's defensive. Martha knows that bringing men it will destroy it.

This could be unconscious on Martha's part, and that's what makes way that she and McBurney serve as opposing influences interesting. Martha is instinctively protective but careful to be fair, self-aware in a way that the younger women are not. Nicole Kidman excels at the little moments where Martha recognizes that she's excited by the soldier's presence even as she sees how disruptive he will be very clearly. Kidman has always been able to bring a sharp iciness to a role when it's demanded, but she does a good job of disguising it here, making it a counter to her genuine compassion, something Martha brings out when she's put in an untenable position.

McBurney, meanwhile, benefits greatly from Coppola having Colin Farrell use something close to his real accent, as Irish Colin Farrell has always been a heck of a lot more compelling than Colin Farrell playing American. He hits an enjoyably sweet spot where what he says to the ladies could be interpreted as utterly sincere or coy, or maybe a little of both - his instinct to be generally charming around beautiful, available women could certainly be harnessed by someone effectively held prisoner within enemy territory. The movie arguably turns on the point where he allows his male id to override his instincts for safety, but for the most part Farrell is a delight to watch as he makes sure that McBurney's natural charisma has an edge of whether or not it's all an act.

The rest of the cast doesn't really have that sense of duality, which is fine; they're mostly kids. Elle Fanning gets arguably the simplest character in Alicia - she's bored and horny even if she doesn't initially realize that second is a big part of the first initially - but she's entertaining. Kirsten Dunst makes Edwina the most fascinating presence in almost every scene that she's part of - even if McBurney didn't read her like a book straight away, the audience can see that she's unsatisfied, feeling the pinch of her limited options, resenting her charges and position just enough that she is particularly vulnerable to the Corporal's attention, even though she is smart enough to know better (I believe this is the character that was half-black in Thomas Culinan's original novel, and it's kind of a shame that Coppola removed that detail; you wouldn't get Dunst's specific great performance, but it feels like it would snap her history and motivation into much clearer relief). Young Oona Laurence shines in a role that is more critical than it initially appears - Amy is the most pure-hearted person in the film without being saccharine, and what power the last act has is balanced on her potentially being corrupted.

That last act is where things wind up falling short of their potential, or at least, where the film's shortcomings become clear - there has been a nagging sense that the ladies never seem as frighteningly beguiled as they should. Coppola is excellent at creating atmosphere and tension, but doing something with them is something else again. As the movie shifts toward being a thriller with more imminent danger, Coppola has to rely on things happening off-screen more, and her reluctance to engage with the Civil War as much more than a fashion aesthetic occasionally saps the film of potential power. The biggest issue is that she still seems unwilling to have the masks come off and the characters revealed as their true selves; folks may get angry at the end, but there's still a sense of restraint, things happening because Coppola needs an ending rather than this being the culmination of what has been simmering since the beginning.

It's a good enough simmer that the film can survive not actually boiling over in truly impressive fashion, and the craft is never less than completely impressive. It's a movie too often caught in the middle, though - smart enough to be worth examining closely even if that doesn't reveal brilliance, and never really willing to dive into the lurid situations described.

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originally posted: 07/14/17 06:56:09
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12/08/17 Crystal X Languid and unsettling 4 stars
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