THE BEGUILED (2017)
Directed by Sofia Copola
Written by Sofia Coppola (screenplay), Thomas Cullinan (novel)
Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard, Wayne Pére, Matt Story, Joel Albin, Eric Ian
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Skirting on the edge of horror is THE BEGUILED, which is more of a tense drama than anything else. Having only a vague recollection of the original starring Clint Eastwood, I had somehow transfixed a combination of MISERY and BOXING HELENA in my mind as dove into this film. What transpired is not as horrific as I thought it would be, a missed opportunity at utter terror and more of an eloquent mini-statement on how much a fragile environment can fall apart when one new factor is added.
Wounded Yankee Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) collapses near a small Virginia school for young ladies as the Civil War rages in the background. McBurney’s presence causes all kinds of turmoil for the headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), one of the teachers Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and the young girls including Alicia (Elle Fanning) who are learning to be little women despite the horrors of war on their doorstep. Choosing to nurse the man back to health, Miss Martha and the girls become wrapped up with the charming recovering Corporal. Knowing he can use their fascination to his advantage, McBurney begins playing the women off of one another in hopes to have a place of solace away from the war, but as tensions between the women rise, their delicate infrastructure begins to crumble threatening to rock the school to its foundations.
This film feels like a delicate flower that falls apart with the slightest breeze. The eloquence of the female cast is the true highlight of the film, seeing these women struggling to learn to be little well mannered ladies, especially when McBurney arrives is the cat and mouse play that makes things so intriguing in the early portions of this film. Seeing that McBurney is simply playing opportunist, rather than a straight up con man, makes the film all the more complex as Farrell plays McBurney as simply trying to survive and get as much of what he can from the women. Later on, he knows what he is doing passing flirting eyes to numerous women, but again, it’s to survive rather than coming from a place of true evil. Once things do get extreme, the action flies by all too quickly and the shift from opportunist to full blown oppressor seems a bit too quick for my tastes, but then again, the events that unfold in the latter minutes of this film are pretty extreme.
Still, I kind of wish Copola would have gone full on horror with this film. Many dark themes are hinted at, but never fully realized. The little girls of the school have heard all of these horrifying and monstrous rumors about Yankee men that McBurney shatters with his presence of being a kind and considerate guest in their home. I would have loved to have seen some of the nightmares about the Yanks within the girls’ imaginations brought to light. Sure McBurney becomes belligerent and angry in the end, but he is hardly a monster. I also would have liked to have seen some elaboration on how the devastation of war and the presence of man affects the intricate structure of the school and the relationships between the women. I think this could have been an interesting statement of how when someone of a different gender enters a microcosm filled with the same gender things are bound to change. I think it would have been more acceptable in today’s society had the film depicted a female disrupting the structure of an all male group, but that’s not what this story seems to want to admit. I think it would have refreshingly honest and truly unique to admit that a group of ladies, no matter what the social standing, will be changed once a man enters the group. Admitting that there is a battle of the sexes, even in the most polite and restrained company would have been refreshing in this day and age when films seem to favor the woman who relies on no man. Even a story that highlights the horror of women’s expectations and interpersonal drama would have been interesting as it would force women to look inward at their own failings rather than blame the intruding male. None of this is really raised in THE BEGUILED and I think had the film been delved into a little more deeply, some really rich and interesting horrors could be plummed.
What we get in the final moments is a severed leg, a dastardly murder, and a coverup—all to preserve the sanctity of the girl’s school. Again, another opportunity to cast these women as something truly evil is missed. In more deft hands, the women could have been cast as relics of the past to serve as a reminder not to be bound by so many policies, rules, mores, and societal expectations and there is a true horror to that as seen through a modern feminist lens. THE BEGUILED doesn’t really want to look at these women in that light though. The elegance of the gowns, the posturing of the polite, and the mannerisms of the elite feel like the central theme here, as if these are simply actresses who enjoyed playing prim and proper—though the same themes could have been played as out and out horrific in the right hands.
Still, I am pontificating about what the film isn’t rather than what the film is. It is a safe film. Even though these women are in support of the Confederacy, you’re not going to see or even hear a mention of slaves. The acting it razor sharp from all involved. Farrell is always fun to watch and listening him in his Irish brogue is a real treat. Kidman and Dunst are fantastic as proper ladies fighting their own desires and Fanning is overflowing with budding sexual curiosity awakened by the Yankee’s presence. And while Copola is skilled in making everything look eloquent and pretty, I’m curious as to see what a more darkly, thematically sound director such as Oz Perkins (THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER and I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE) would have done with the material. I feel my expectations for this film were high and THE BEGUILED never really came close to them. It is a capable film, well acted, and gorgeous to look at, but the horrors are only skimmed upon with too light and unconfident a touch.