The Beguiled (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): A disturbance in their insular world

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“The Beguiled”, the latest work from Sofia Coppola, is an atmospheric period piece about one small insular world and the quiet disturbance among its few inhabitants. When an outsider happens to be brought into their world, his presence gradually casts a certain influence over them, and the movie calmly and subtly observes the growing nervousness around its main characters as leisurely rolling the plot to a dark, disturbing moment of inevitability.

The movie is based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel “A Painted Devil”, which was already made into a feature film by Don Siegel in 1971. I did not read the novel, but I can tell you that the plotline of Coppola’s adapted screenplay does not deviate much from that of the 1971 film while making a number of notable changes. For example, the black maid character in the 1971 film is eliminated in the 2017 version, and Coppola chooses a more subtle and restrained storytelling approach in contrast to the blatantly morbid impression of the 1971 film. While this low-key approach can occasionally be frustrating for some of you, the movie is still engaging thanks to its absorbing period atmosphere, and it is also intriguing to watch considering its female perspective on the rather misogynous aspects of the story.

Like the 1971 film, the 2017 version opens with a young girl walking around in a nearby forest. It is around the end of the Civil War in US during the late 19th century, and Amy (Oona Laurence) is one of a few girls remaining in a seminary located somewhere in the South. While looking for mushrooms to eat as usual, she suddenly comes across an Union soldier who is injured badly as being on the verge of losing his consciousness. He is Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), and Amy brings him into the seminary although he is an enemy to her and many others in the South.

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Because McBurney is apparently in the serious need of help, Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), a spinster who has run the seminary while assisted by a young teacher named Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), decides to treat him first before handing him to the Confederate army. He is taken to a music room which will temporarily function as a space for his recovery, and Farnworth promptly takes care of his injury. As the camera closely watches her hands washing his body parts during a subsequent scene, the movie quietly implies a certain feeling being stirred inside Farnsworth’s mind, and we are not so surprised when she comes to change her initial decision not long after that.

As McBurney stays longer in the seminary, we see how his presence brings a considerable change into the isolated world of Farnsworth, Morrow, and their students. Like any other adolescent girls, Amy and other students cannot help but curious about a man brought into their world, and we get an amusing moment between Morrow and one of the students who uses Morrow’s earrings for making her look good in front of McBurney.

Knowing well that his situation depends on Farnsworth and Morrow as well as the students, McBurney tries to win a favor from them. As he gets better day by day, he shows Farnsworth that he may help her a lot as an able-bodied man, and he becomes nicer and friendlier to Amy and other girls including Alicia (Elle Fanning), who is the eldest of the bunch and is certainly interested in him a lot.

In addition, McBurney approaches very close to Morrow, who slowly comes to lose her introverted attitude as he shows his affection toward her in private. While the war is still being continued as reflected by the occasional sounds of cannons heard from outside, it is bound to be over sooner or later, and there may be a future for them in the West after the war.

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However, there is always the faint sense of tension hovering around the characters in the film, and it is steadily accumulated below the surface thanks to the competent direction of Coppola, who received the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival early in this year. After a sudden narrative turn which happens around the end of the second act, the situation among the characters in the movie becomes more complicated than before, and that is how Farnsworth and her girls come to decide that something should be done for taking care of their problem. If you have seen the 1971 film like me, you know what will happen in the end, and the movie does deliver an effective dramatic punch during that part.

Although most of characters in the film are rather underdeveloped, the cast members fill their respective roles with each own presence. While Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst are relatively subdued compared to Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman in the 1971 film, Colin Farrell is a little more sympathetic in contrast to Clint Eastwood’s caddish turn in the 1971 film. Elle Fanning ably exudes her character’s burgeoning sexuality, and Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence, Emma Howard, and Addison Riecke are also fine as the other characters in the seminary.

As shown from “The Virgin Suicides” (1999), “Lost in Translation” (2002), “Marie Antoinette” (2006), and “Somewhere” (2010), Coppola has usually been interested in characters stuck in their insular environments, and “The Beguiled” is another curious work exemplifying that interesting aspect of her filmmaking career. While I don’t think it is better than the 1971 version, Coppola mostly succeeds in mixing old and new things along with her distinctive female perspective, and the result is surely another interesting case of remake.

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