The Beguiled (2017)

What looks like is going to be a Gothic horror set in the Civil War period, turns out to be a psycho-sexual drama with a slightly demented finish. I was not fooled by the trailer or other marketing, because I’d seen the original version of the story from 1971. There are a few changes in the film which were supposed to alter the perspective from the soldiers point of view to that of the women in the story. I guess that would be the justification for remaking a film that was not particularly compelling the first time out. Let’s just say for the moment that they may have altered the perspective some but they have not overcome the issue of the film lacking a need to exist in the first place.

Sophia Coppola is a director that many admire but I have found most of the films by her, that I have seen, to be cold and disengaging. They are beautifully shot and “The Beguiled” is certainly beautiful. Set in Virginia during the last year of the War between the States, the story concerns a wounded Union soldier taken in by a girls academy. The school is run by matron southerner Nicole Kidman. She is assisted by a younger woman played by Kirsten Dunst and they are in charge of five young women and girls who are being educated in a traditional form for young ladies. As they learn French and penmanship and sewing skills, their life is disrupted by the war around them. The introduction of Corporal McBurney (a solid Colin Farrell) into their island  of antebellum etiquette throws things into a tizzy. Since it is a Sophia Coppola film however, it is done at a languishing pace with each frame posed as if it were a still life being painted for the wall of another plantation.

 

The pacing of the story is so agonizingly slow, but still interesting, because of the mores and cultural rules the people of that time operate in. Even when he is being chastised by Kidman,  the dialogue between the two consists of polite and well thought out vocabulary. The inflections and tones contain the reprimands more than any word does. McBurney slowly courts the Dunst character and again it is done in a manner reflecting the times. In the original film, Clint Eastwood is much more clearly manipulative and he is wooing multiple women simultaneously. Farrell’s version of the character seems sincere in his approach to Edwina, but Kidman’s Miss Martha is also drawn to him and Elle fanning as the recalcitrant Alicia is the most brazen of the girls who have sexualized the Corporal in their heads. The little girls are fascinated by him as well but it is his Irish Charm and status as a Union soldier that holds their interest. As the story gets closer to the dramatic elements, it feels like it wakes up in a burst of energy and tries to accomplish everything the movie set up in the first ninety minutes in a two minute segment. There is a betrayal on a couple of levels, but those come rapidly and are followed by a resolution that seems to have been arrived at capriciously. The film feels like it is missing the second act.

Farrell and Dunst are the two standout performances. They are tentative and then passionate and frustrated and anguished in very effective moments. Kidman seems a little miscast. She is older but certainly desirable rather than repressed and desperate. Her delicate bathing of Farrell when he first arrives was the strongest part of her performance but in the manner she shows herself during the rest of the film, she feels a little stiff. The biggest unpleasant surprise from the actors comes from Elle fanning, an actress that i thought was special in  Super 8, but here she looks like she is play acting and although she is an aggressive flirt, she does not give off the impression of lustfulness that would justify the Corporal’s behavior.

The only way I see this film as being a more feminist version of the original is that only one of the women completely falls under the sexual power of the man, and he is the one who is manipulated by two of the other women. That’s about it. This is a good film but not a great one. It retells the original story but without much justification for doing so. It also makes the languid pace of the original seem frenetic by comparison.  The only music in the film occurs on screen when the girls are singing or performing, with the exception of an occasional synthesizer note held for a long period as a prelude to a couple of moments near the end. That may be another reason the fil feels longer than it should, without a melody it feels plodding. This is a film for Coppola Completists  or someone who has missed the original and has already seen everything else playing. I am largely indifferent on it.

LION

 

This is a tale of two tales. The first half of this movie is compelling and emotionally engaging. It has a fantastic child performance and it says so many things about what is wrong with some aspects of the world that you will want to act after seeing some of it. The second half is anti-climactic for the most part. The extended story of our hero does not play out completely and it raises different issues that seem to be only tangentially related to what we started with. There is another solid performance as well, but it is overshadowed by the legacy of the younger version of our lead character.

Young Sunny Pawar plays the hero of the story, a kid named Saroo, who gets separated from his family in one of the biggest and most populated countries in the world. The circumstances of his “disappearance” are accidental, but much of the trauma that follows is deliberate and frightening. He is a child of maybe five, several hundred miles from home, in which direction he has no idea, and the only name he knows his Mother by is Mum. The family was scratching out a living doing manual labor and pilfering small amounts of commodities that are unwatched. He ends up in Calcutta, a city teeming with people, many of whom are looking to exploit a child.

We want authority figures and government agencies to be reliable, but as they appear here, it seems they are as much a part of the problem as some of the criminal element. There are some competent people who do finally end up helping Saroo connect with a different family in a country even further away. When Sunny Pawar is playing the character of Saroo, everything seems real and the stakes are so high as to keep us enthralled. When a twenty year period goes by with a single title card, and Saroo is played by Dev Patel, the stakes seem so much lower and the emotions feel like they are straining for significance. Saroo’s identity crisis might have been a solid film if the movie had worked backwards. Instead it plays out like some psychological drama that would make an interesting hour on TV.

The complicated relationship the adult Saroo has with his adopted family is told in the most bare bones way possible. There are cryptic references to his adopted brother’s drug use and emotional damage. Nicole Kidman as his adopted mother spends a lot of her time weeping for the problems of Mantosh, her second adopted child but Saroo never reaches out to either his mother or father for help in his crisis. They are the two most supportive parents you can imagine, and he is so wound up about his memories of his real brother and mother, that he can’t bother to ask for help. This section of the movie is so frustrating because we can’t figure out why he feels that way. Even when he has a supportive girlfriend to exchange exposition with.

I know this is based on a true story. When the film ends and we get some clips and a scroll of the truth, it is very compelling. If the film had been a documentary, or the story structure were different, I think I’d have been really more impressed. As it is, I liked the movie a lot, but it depended on the resolution of the search to redeem a dull passage that takes up a big chunk of the film. I’ve heard award talk about Patel and Kidman, but if anyone in this movie deserves to be honored for their performance, it is a little boy from India who made us care in the first place.