"There are nights when all my aching bones won't let me sleep,
And demons come to plague me as I lie in bed."
- Crash Test Dummies
What happens when compassion conflicts with suppressed urges?
Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) runs a school for girls in the Civil War era Virginia countryside. She teaches the ways of prim and proper southern lady etiquette, as an accompaniment of cannon fire echoes a bit too close for comfort. When a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), is unexpectedly tossed into the mix, allegiances are tested, nerves are frayed, and unspoken desires are gradually unleashed.
Coppola gets a couple of things just right. She is masterful at setting a mood in her films. Each nuanced creak of a floorboard, or knock of a heel against hard wooden floors, set viewers inside the world she creates. We aren't watching from afar; we are there for every swish of a white, lacy dress. Her setting for The Beguiled is gorgeous in its simplicity. A southern mansion, styled with refined antiquities inside and neglected landscaping outside, sits almost fitfully; agitated as similarly as its inhabitants. There is a soft haze to her outside shots, as if the Virginia humidity is trying to break the fourth wall. It feels metaphorically aligned with her female characters, in that there is a hidden beauty surrounded by an oppressive force.
Coppola's characters, certainly buoyed by terrific performances, are written in a way that feels both natural and age appropriate, especially for the era. The inquisitive younger children, Jane (Angourie Rice), Marie (Addison Riecke), and Emily (Emma Howard), whose reaction to the Corporal's presence range from indifferent to stranger danger, provide some respite from the pheromones seeping out of the older characters. In the middle is Amy (Ooma Lawrence), responsible for this fly in the ointment predicament when she finds the wounded McBurney whilst out picking wild mushrooms in the nearby woods. Cautious at first, Amy is instantly smitten by McBurney's charms, not in a creepy way, but in a young girl coming of age way. Coppola is careful not to cross any lines here.
The catalyst for the burgeoning hijinx comes courtesy of the three "older" ladies. The head of the house, Martha (Kidman), always wearing a motherly prickliness in front of her charges, sees something in McBurney she is eager to explore. It's been a long time since Martha has felt the touch of a man, and Kidman does a fantastic job in portraying that repressed sexual angst.
Alicia (Elle Fanning), is the precocious teen; hormones raging and prepared to go down whatever rabbit hole is necessary to pique McBurney's interest. Sneaking a kiss from the sleeping Corporal balances between creepy and cute, but Fanning is up to the task of playing a character on the cusp of flowering, and she tee-hees at exactly the right moments.
Colin Farrell's Corporal McBurney is quite a charmer. He knows a good thing when he sees it. He is characterized as a noble man, albeit a cowardly one, rather than from a fox in the henhouse perspective. He is outwardly polite and respectful. As he heals, he becomes a stable force within the household, helping tend to the grounds in an attempt to lengthen his stay. It's an interesting contrast, as many of the ladies perceive him as a potential danger, being a soldier from the enemy team and all, yet he is the one that seems more imminently in peril. Sometimes outside forces threaten him, as when Confederate soldiers come knocking, and at other times the threats stem from the feminine wiles of his caretakers. Farrell plays it all fairly straight until circumstances in his situation abruptly change in the third act.
The standout here is Kirsten Dunst's Edwina, so buttoned up and lacking any semblance of self worth, portraying Martha's second in command with a solemn gravitas as to be nearly invisible at times. The inner sorrow Edwina wears on her tired, weathered face is heartbreaking. Her interactions with the Corporal are likened to therapy sessions for her diminished persona, as if McBurney were desperately trying to nurse a near dead plant back to life by whispering sweet nothings to it. Dunst's performance is so subtle and nuanced, we can argue whether this might be her best work to date.
For most of the film we are basically witnessing a ping pong match, the ladies all jockeying for Corporal McBurney's attention or affections, depending on which lady we're talking about. Eventually, McBurney is tempted to a point in which his primal urges take over, and while I won't give anything away as to who wins the battle of seduction, suffice it to say that trusts will be broken, feelings will be hurt, and the film takes a hairpin turn from subdued romantic drama into a semi-tense thriller.
The biggest frustration I have with The Beguiled is that I feel like Coppola didn't take her vision far enough down the winding narrow road. It's the same complaint I have of her take on The Bling Ring. She stops just short of creating a masterpiece, and I can't tell if it's a lack of vision to seeing a story through to the answers she seems to want to ask, or if she's doing it intentionally, preferring to hold back and concentrate on her directorial craft. She is the first woman in decades to receive the Best Director award at Cannes, and she deserves all of the accolades she's receiving from that perspective. But for all of that, I just wanted an extra push in the story.
I used the term semi-tense earlier. There never felt as if there was imminent danger when imminent danger should have been present. I wanted to know more about how Edwina's past brought her to this point in life. The same could be said of Martha. This lack of refinement muddies the water just a bit in trying to tell exactly what Coppola was trying to say. It's difficult to earmark a true villain in The Beguiled. Perhaps humanity itself is that villain. Or perhaps the intent was never to define one. Coppola's unwillingness to dig slightly deeper prevents us from completely wrapping our heads around whatever statement she thought she was making.
All said, The Beguiled is definitely the polar opposite of the type of film normally found in cineplexes this time of year. It's a nice break from the big budgeted explosions hammering the walls of adjoining theaters. It would be nice to see Coppola and Dunst garner some awards buzz come end of the year, but that might be wishful thinking considering Oscars' short term memory for anything with a release date short of October first. This is worth a look, if only for the craft of filmmaking and the exceptional acting. Think The Witches of Eastwick without all of the camp. Same great hormone taste without the added Cher.
4 out of 5