The Beguiled

 

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Sofia Coppola enters what is new territory for her in this remake of a period drama set in the American South.

 
Beguiled, The

Nicole Kidman

 

This, the sixth feature to be written and directed by Sofia Coppola, is technically the best that she has ever made and it is probably the best acted too. The material derives from a novel by Thomas Cullinan first filmed in 1971 by Don Siegel. In that guise it was seen as atypical of the films that he was making with Clint Eastwood and, indeed, atypical of Siegel's work generally.  His version was seen as a baroque drama dubious in its attitude as it portrayed the teachers and pupils in a seminary for young ladies in Virginia. The piece was set in the American Civil War period and the tale told found this establishment riven by sexual jealousies after the owner, Miss Martha, has taken in a wounded Yankee soldier in need of help. But it is the eventual fate of this corporal, John McBurney, at the hands of these women who regard themselves as Christians that provides the gothic climax to the tale. 

 

Coppola's film closely follows the original story but, being a remake by a female filmmaker, it seeks to play down the gothic element and to show some understanding for all of the characters. In point of fact, the way in which three of the women in particular are drawn to the flirtatious corporal could be the stuff of farce or, at the opposite extreme, could be geared to melodrama throughout. Coppola's middle course allows for touches of humour in the first half, but the storyline grows increasingly more gothic in tone and at the press show I attended some of the audience were giggling. At times it may seem that laughter is being deliberately courted (one dramatic episode finds Miss Martha preparing to amputate a leg, a situation which prompts her to suggest that it might be a good idea if somebody were to bring her an anatomy book). However, it was evident that the laughter I heard was more widespread than Coppola intended.

 

In terms of the effectiveness of the material, it is also relevant that, even if the characters are presented in human terms, only one of them, the teacher Edwina, whose feelings for John McBurney come closest to actual love, is really sympathetic. She is played here by Kirsten Dunst giving the best performance in the film, although Colin Farrell is spot on as McBurney and the other players, including Nicole Kidman as Miss Martha and Elle Fanning as the most infatuated of the students, all do well. The period sense is well judged (none of the out of period touches used by Coppola in Marie Antoinette are allowed here) and wisely the film is not overextended: it comes in at only slightly more than 90 minutes. There's a sureness of touch in the direction from beginning to end and that, together with the quality of the acting, makes this an enjoyable watch. Even so, the story as told here remains something of an oddity, and it never really becomes clear why Coppola felt the need to revisit it.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison  Riecke, Emma Howard, Wayne Pere.

 

Dir Sofia Coppola, Pro Sofia Coppola and Youree Henley, Screenplay Sofia Coppola, from the novel by Thomas Cullinan and the screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, Ph Philippe Le Sourd, Pro Des Anne Ross, Ed Sarah Flack, Music Phoenix, Costumes Stacey Battat.

 

Focus Features/American Zoetrope-Universal Pictures.
94 mins. USA. 2017. Rel: 14 July 2017. Cert. 15.