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Front Page - Friday, July 7, 2017

Critic's Corner: Coppola does well with new ‘Beguiled’

The beginning of July brings “The Beguiled” to theaters. This welcome bit of adult melodrama arrives in the midst of blockbuster season, which has already grown long in the tooth. I appreciate everything about the film except its ending, which feels too easy.

Based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Thomas P. Cullinan and directed by Sophia Coppola, “The Beguiled” is set at a girls school in Virginia during the Civil War. The seminary is nearly empty, with only its headmistress, Miss Martha, one teacher and five students left on the premises.

While out gathering mushrooms for dinner, Amy, one of the students, comes across John McBurney, a corporal with the Union Army. McBurney was injured during battle and subsequently abandoned ship. When Amy finds him, he’s leaning against a tree trunk, well on his way to dying.

Shocked to find an enemy soldier in the woods, Amy nonetheless helps the corporal back to the school. The rest of the women and girls are just as stunned as Amy, but Christian charity compels them to save McBurney’s life and then nurse him back to health.

The rest of the film plays out like you would expect it to. But “The Beguiled” is less about what happens and more about, as the late movie critic Roger Ebert often wrote, how it happens.

From the outset, Coppola establishes a genteel setting, with the girls dressed like proper southern ladies for French lessons, engaging in refined dinner conversation and ending the day with prayer (the Catholic kind, not the Baptist kind).

Throwing a sweaty, incapacitated man with Colin Ferrell’s smoldering good looks into that environment is like shoveling hot coals into a bucket of ice. The carefully honed Southern gentility quickly dissolves into simmering sexual tension, jealous glances and jostling for position.

Coppola, who wrote the screenplay, doesn’t hide the fact that McBurney is a wolf looking to devour these sheep – or that he has his pick of the flock. But she knows where to hold back and let the material do the work.

She doesn’t, for example, make a point of showing McBurney to be a physical threat, but lets her viewers sense that his presence in a house of women is a danger. In “The Beguiled,” the things not shown or spoken cultivate an undercurrent of considerable tension.

On the other hand, the things Coppola and her cinematographer, Philippe Le Sourd, do show are a pleasure to behold. I love the look of “The Beguiled,” which uses natural lighting and candlelight to create not only a sense of time and place but also isolate the women in the Southern wilderness, heightening their vulnerability.

Outside, the stately, white columned-manor, in which the school is set, are tall trees dripping with moss and grounds stuffed with overgrown foliage. The muted colors and dull shafts of sunlight that filter through the trees are beautiful in their own way and look unlike anything I have seen in a movie. It’s as though the entire film was shot in that subdued moment before nightfall when day has left but darkness has not quite arrived.

Also notable is the cast, which is nothing less than stellar. As Miss Farnworth, Nicole Kidman paints a portrait of uptight southern repression that’s nearly unraveled on several occasions. You can almost feel her sexual desire stretching the skin of her face and threatening to rip through.

Kirsten Dunst delivers an equally admirable performance as teacher Edwina Morrow, striking a perfect balance of worldliness and innocence.

And Ferrell, who’s surrounded by some of modern cinema’s best actresses, matches them beat for beat, although he’s not given an opportunity to shine until the final act.

Unfortunately, that’s when “The Beguiled” falters. Coppola avoids what could have been a devastating blow and instead goes for a safe and half-baked ending.

This could be blamed on the source material, which probably ended as the movie did. (I don’t know; I haven’t read the book.) But Coppola took creative liberties with the novel by casting Dunst as Morrow, a biracial character in the book, and she could have gone a step further to give the ending more punch.

I also feel like Coppola was reaching for something artistic – perhaps the theme of female empowerment – but her efforts were drowned in the melodrama.

That said, Coppola, who won the Best Director Award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for “The Beguiled, is never boring. As she has shown with films like “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation,” she’s an intelligent writer with strong grasp of character and a director with a great eye for detail.

As such, “The Beguiled” is a nice summer respite for adult moviegoers before we head into another month of effects filled spectacle.

3 out of 4 stars