Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Director: Sofia Coppola
Written by: Sofia Coppola based on Thomas Cullinan’s novel and Albert Maltz and Grimes Grice’s screenplay
Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 6/19/17
Opens: June 23, 2017
Given the way the U.S. is divided today, politicians from red states clashing with those from blue states, you might wonder whether the split in our country is not unlike the divisions that led to the Civil War. One could imagine that history buffs would turn to the War Between the States for guidance during this time that few leaders are crossing the aisle, and though “The Beguiled” is informed by that war in that it takes place in Virginia in 1864, the subject matter is unlike that of most other films set in that period. Sofia Coppola, who directed “Marie Antoinette,” has been cheered by feminists as a person who will choose stories focused primarily on women. “The Beguiled” would surely reinforce her commitment to women’s roles since aside from a brief shot of Confederate soldiers near the battles in Virginia, there is only one male with a significant role, dependent on the kindness of seven women in a girls’ boarding school.
That said, however, Colin Farrell in the role of Corporal John McBurney, a Union soldier who lies wounded near a southern battlefield, disrupts the lives of the seven women housed under the school’s roof. He is the catalyst that unleashes a flood of repressed sexuality in at least three of the women, more evidence of the saying aturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret, or “You may drive out nature with a pitchfork, she keeps coming back.”
Filmed by Philippe Le Sourd on Louisiana’s Madewood Plantation in Napoleonville, which has the look of an Eden about to be corrupted (though it would be restored decades later as a historic hotel with Wi-Fi), writer-director Coppola takes us to a wounded Corporal McBurney lying under a tree with a half dozen bullets in his body. He is a gentleman who should never have been there, having crossed over from Ireland without a dime to his name, eager to accept $300 from the federal government by volunteering for the Union Army. An understandably afraid Amy (Ooona Laurence) helps him to walk back to the large house where Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) serves as headmistress with Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) on the teaching staff.
As the only man for miles, surrounded by women who sympathize with his vulnerability, he serves as catalyst for the repressed sexuality of the two adults and one student, Alicia (Elle Fanning), as well. As Martha takes charge, removing the bullets and washing him, she fights internally against what comes naturally, treating him with ice at one point and with warmth at another. Edwina’s feelings are not so subtle. Already considered a spinster who, unlike Martha may never have had a boyfriend, she is more overt in her lust, intensified since she has moments alone in the room to which McBurney is confined for treatment. Conversations about what to do with him, whether to turn him over to the Confederates, take precedence over the French lessons, while for his part McBurney, looking to remain sheltered as long as possible, deceives the women. He professes love to one, and gushes over the kindness of the others. His presence, in short, is beguiling, a term that means both “deceptive” and “charming.”
Southern hospitality is front and center, the whole enterprise—confined to the big house and its immediate surroundings for a few weeks—test whether the rivalries for McBurney’s attention will tear apart the school and turn the women from mutual affection into an anarchy that reflects the divisions of the two armies during the final year of the war. Though conventional suspense is not the film’s strong point, the graceful performances all around—the women conflicted on what should be done with this welcome intruder—give the film gravitas. Another title for this Civil War harlequin-style romance could be “Sleeping with the Enemy.”
Rated R. 93 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
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