Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Beguiled (2017) - Movie Review
The plot: Amy (Oona Laurence), a student of a Virginian girls school during the American Civil War, comes across a wounded Union soldier in the woods surrounding the school. Amy brings the soldier, named Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell), to the school where the headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) agrees to bring him in and get him better. However, with Confederate soldiers frequently marching outside their gates, and the girls at the school not being sure how much they can trust the Corporal, they may have to come to a difficult decision about what to do with him.

The cast here is comprised of some of the best female actors both past and present, all of whom pull their respective weight in the narrative. Kidman delivers one of the better performances I’ve seen from her as the head of the household, keeping a very level head in a rather trying situation. Laurence makes for a strong initial presence as the girl who first finds the Corporal, keeping one of the film’s main thematic anchors in place by showing remarkable chemistry with Farrell, highlighting the humanity of the story. Elle Fanning gives a certain sensual mischievousness to her role as one of the more lovestruck students, setting in place the film’s more amorous themes. Kirsten Dunst as one of the teachers strikes a nice balance between affection and caution, securing another main anchor of the story about the uncertainty lying between the two extremes. And as for Farrell himself, he brings the right amount of weathered charm and erratic unease to make the role work, coming across as the kind of person you would want to get close to… even if you’re not sure how safe it is to get there.

With the American Civil War as the backdrop, Coppola wrings a lot of psychological weight out of the main premise. It taps into that human disconnect between an innate desire to do good (filtered here through then-contemporary Christian doctrine) and the fear of others seeking to do harm (like how the women speak in hushed tones about Union soldiers raping any Southern women they encounter). As much as the very dreary colour palette doesn't do many favours for the production in terms of visual engagement, the texture of suspicion within the script ends up picking up in rather remarkable ways. Namely, because said suspicion doesn't rely solely on historical context.

Knowing Coppola's prior filmography, particularly works like The Virgin Suicides, this feels like she's submerged herself in a similar tone when it comes to showing gender divides. Or, more specifically, what draws one to the other. The way that the energy within the school flares up with the Corporal's arrival is handled in such a delicate fashion as to be legitimately impressive. It gets across a certain competition for the Corporal's affection as well as highlighting a tangible romantic and even sexual mood amongst the women, but it's all done without becoming fetishized. It's attraction shown strictly through the female gaze, allowing for the other half of the puzzle that the Clint Eastwood original lacked.

Have to admit, more so than a lot of films I've covered over the years, I feel particularly out of my element with this one. The reason is embarrassingly simple: Everything I have ever or will ever discuss on here is born from my own frame of reference. I haven't had nearly enough contact with the opposite sex for that to apply here; I don't want to pretend I know how women think with any real degree of accuracy. Yeah, I’ve made points about feminine representation on film, in particular some of the more egregious examples I keep finding under the ‘chick flick’ sub-genre, but when I’m working off of something as underplayed as this film, I don’t want to come across like a “nice guy” when it comes to areas of feminism. I mentioned Virgin Suicides earlier and in a weird case of life imitating art, I feel like I'm in a similar position to the boys in that film, trying to figure out these strange and interesting creatures who lack a Y chromosome.

And yet, even as I voice these potential concerns, I can't help but laugh at myself. Is there THAT big of a difference between the genders that this worry is warranted? Going just by this film, perhaps not. Or, at the very least, we'd be better off if we stopped acting like it is. Like with Virgin Suicides, the resulting effects of that Mars And Venus approach to the sexes leads to some rather dark moments as the Corporal interacts more with the women in the school. Moments born out of that same sense of fear that derives from an us vs. them mentality, whether it's a figurative war of the sexes or the literal war going on around the characters. Kind of fitting that a film containing this much under-the-surface conflict would create a reaction based on conflict.

All in all, remember how mad everyone got when they released a Ghostbusters movie where the main draw was that it was all female leads instead of all male leads? Imagine that same mindset behind retelling a story but done well. Through the shifting of perspective between this and the Clint Eastwood original, it provides insight into the other side of the equation, allowing for a chance to show female agency and dramatic urgency without any of it feeling like it’s being done for show. If anything, through how Coppola’s scripting highlights the issues with the social divide between men and women, something that manages to creep through the period setting into something contemporary, this feels like it has a purpose in its existence beyond just “same story with distaff recasting”. Have to admit, it’s nice that there’s a film out there that stands a chance to put a nail in that coffin of a bloody argument against more prominent female characters in film.

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