The Beguiled

There are certain types of films where the filmmakers do not provide windows into the characters’ souls, or at least not windows with clear glass.  There are no flashbacks or long speeches detailing formative events in childhood.  They don’t explain themselves or their motivations in any way.  The audience is left to speculate on such things or to be content with a main character or two being a cipher.  These films can be difficult because it often takes an effort to emphasize with or even understand such characters.  It’s like listening to atonal music; you have to pay close attention.

Whether or not the film is a success depends on if enough people think the effort is worth it.

It’s 1863 and the Civil War is raging near the Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, a genteel girls’ boarding school in rural Virginia.  This institution is run by Miss Martha, played by Nicole Kidman with the help of Miss Edwina, played by Kirsten Dunst.  Because of the war there are only six girls residing at the school and they are only there because their families decided it was too dangerous to bring them home.  But battles are being fought scant miles away from the school and Union soldiers have been marauding in the area.  They’ve already stolen the school’s chickens.  Most of the girls regard Union soldiers as monstrous rapists and murderers.

One of the school’s younger students, Amy, played by Oona Laurence, is out looking for mushrooms in the forest and discovers a Union soldier with a bad leg wound.  He is Corporal John McBurney, played by Colin Ferrell.  Amy brings him back to the school.  After much debate Miss Martha and Miss Edwina decide to not inform the Confederate troops who regularly patrol the area about Corporal McBurney.  They tell themselves that he’ll die soon anyway and poses no threat.  But even at this early stage the justification seems thin.

Thanks to the two women’s ministrations McBurney starts to recover.  At first he is thankful and polite.  Once he is able he begins to do chores around the school in order to pull his own weight.  He forms relationships with the girls, especially Amy.  But then he begins to make advances to Miss Edwina, who is guarded and cautious at first even though McBurney appears to be sincere.

Problems begin when Miss Martha falls for him as well and Alicia, played by Elle Fanning, one of the older students in her late teens also enters the competition for his affections.

The Beguiled is a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood/Don Siegel film of the same name.  I haven’t seen it but according to Wikipedia Siegel said that it, “deals with the themes of sex, violence and vengeance and was based around, ‘the basic desire of women to castrate men.’”  Such misogyny was par for the course in filmmaking at that time.  Sofia Coppola, the director of the 2017 version was drawn to the remake to tell the same story from a female viewpoint.  At some point I would like to read a compare and contrast article.

It is a pretty film, well-acted, especially by the leads.  Although, as I indicated earlier, it is somewhat emotionally opaque. The only things you know about the characters is that McBurney joined the Union army straight off the boat from Ireland because he had no money.  Also he’s not the bravest man around.  And we also know that Miss Edwina is very unhappy at the school.

There’s a flaw in the script, which is by Sofia Coppola, as well.  It takes a while for the central conflict to manifest.  I suppose there are subtle things happening that are building tension during the first forty-five minutes to an hour but they really didn’t work in the intended way and they don’t advance the plot.  Everything at the school is going along as well as can be expected.

One quibble I have is that the presence of Spanish Moss in the trees is a very important visual symbol.  The opening shot is of a dirt road with a canopy of moss covered trees suspended over it, a soft-edged tunnel symbolizing our entry into the female world.  I live in North Carolina and it gets too cold here for Spanish Moss to survive.  You certainly don’t see it in Virginia.  But that’s obviously a minor complaint.

I think that like the characters, my reaction to this movie was muted and mysterious.  The film left me unmoved.  Or, to give it the benefit of the doubt, it’s a good film but simply not for me.


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