Thursday, June 29, 2017

Too restrained for its own good

Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled : lost in an arty haze.
There's an alarming gap between style and substance in Sofia Coppola's new movie, The Beguiled, a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood film about a wounded Union soldier who finds refuge in a Virginia school for girls during the waning days of the Civil War.

In a sense, Coppola has taken grade "B" material and given it an "A"-grade artistic gloss that sometimes threatens to suffocate the movie's dramatic life.

Not surprisingly, the soldier's presence among these women prompts turmoil as students and teachers try to adjust to a male presence. Some of the students -- notably a character played by Elle Fanning -- are just beginning to discover their sexuality, making the movie a hothouse of suppressed and overt desire, as well as of trust and mistrust.

Too often, though, The Beguiled is a hothouse in which someone forgets to turn up the heat.

Three performances stand out. Colin Farrell plays soldier John McBurney as a cagey fellow with anger simmering beneath a solicitous surface. An excellent Nicole Kidman brings subtle levels of calculation to the role of headmistress Martha Farnsworth, the woman who washes the soldier's partially naked body when he's brought to the school.

Kirsten Dunst's excels as Edwina Danny, a teacher for whom McBurney represents liberating escape from an impending spinsterhood.

Coppola eliminates one of the characters found in director Don Siegel's earlier version, an enslaved woman. That means that Coppola mostly ignores the perverse undercurrents of racism. If you wanted to push the point (and some have), you could call it an elegant form of denial.

Coppola's overly decorous approach elevates atmospherics. Her movie includes a couple of gruesome events but doesn't seem entirely committed to them. No more can said without spoilers.

Every character in The Beguiled, I suppose, must react to a war-time situation in which norms have been upset, but the movie could have used a little more of the bile that ultimately begins to flow.

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