The Beguiled (2017)
When movie’s form and substance are not in harmony the strain can be obvious. With a stellar cast, superb cinematography and magnificent American Gothic period setting, The Beguiled (2017) has uncompromisingly beautiful form. In terms of substance, on the other hand, its characterisation and narrative interpretation are underwhelming.
The storyline is uncomplicated. A wounded Union mercenary Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is found in the woods by a young pupil of a nearby prestigious girls school. She helps him limp to the school where the headmistress Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) agrees out of Christian kindness to provide shelter from the Confederates. The slave servants have fled and the Civil War rages, but the school stays open for a handful of orphaned girls. McBurney knows that his charm and seduction skills are vital to his survival as he smirks privately at having landed in a crinoline paradise compared to the battle outside. The ladies are aflutter at his presence and an atmosphere of repressed sexuality and jealousy simmer below the surface. But he is too clever for his own Irish charm as he tries to worm his way into too many beds. When caught out for his duplicity, the sweet angels of charity exact their revenge.
With a story rich in narrative potential and star-power like Kidman, Farrell and Fanning, you might expect a delicious thriller melodrama with characters of depth, complexity and nuance. But instead we find a flat narrative with two-dimensional caricatures devoid of emotional expression. Apart from McBurney’s angry outburst at having been thwarted by a mere handful of women, nobody in this film seems to feel anything more urgent than how the plates might be arranged for dinner. Piques of jealousy, fear, passion, feminist rage? – none seem to have made the final cut. Perhaps it’s a Gothic affectation that upper-class Southern ladies enjoy French grammar and music lessons accompanied by exploding cannonballs. Whenever there is hope for an exciting narrative twist, the ladies spontaneously assemble for a posed composition of exquisite elegance and formality as if beckoned by a painter for a portrait sitting. Seeing this the first time is a visual delight; seeing it multiple times displays a level of artifice that distracts from an already slow narrative. Gothic atmosphere is usually full of tension but here it’s more about smoky mists and mood lighting that varies between dark, darker and darkest. What could have been offered as a triumphantly gruesome finale is instead played out as deadpan politeness in a sewing lesson for once rich young white ladies.
Opinions differ widely about this film. Some will have seen the 1971 version or read the source novel, others of course will see it cold. Perhaps it is meant to be a deliberately restrained feminist Gothic noir interpretation. However, despite its high-quality inputs this film is more about form than substance. It has not risen to its potential.
Director: Sophia Coppola
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning
A USA production