The Big Dummy
Many a time, you see a character in film and feel pity for their predicament. Other times though? You can’t help but pile on the shame game by saying, “Don’t look at me, you blew your opportunity big time.” The latter can lead to some compelling and intriguing drama, but you really have to suck us in to the character’s story. Now when I knew Sophia Coppola was directing a story in that vein, I was worried. Aside from Lost in Translation, she never really impressed me again. Both Marie Antoinette and The Bling Ring were underwhelming, and Somewhere was frustratingly boring. I went into this film hoping she would redeem herself in my eyes after the promise of earning her first Oscar with her directorial debut. In some ways, I was pleasantly surprised by her remake of an old Clint Eastwood-starring film, but I was left cold in others that really forces me to decide in which venue you should check this movie out.
Similarly to the original, we find Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) wounded after a battle in Virginia during the American Civil War. This is slightly inconvenient as he’s a Union soldier and he’s deep into Confederate territory, but he’s discovered by a young girl from a nearby boarding school for young women lead by Nicole Kidman’s Martha Farnsworth. The headmistress agrees to care for the enemy combatant and nurse him back to health with the help of another teacher, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and some of the other students including Alicia (Elle Fanning). Thing is, McBurney is thoroughly charming to these ladies and the young girls, and so they can’t help but try to make him as comfortable as possible. Jealousy soon erupts among the women, but it’s also envy that has grown in no small parts to some frankly idiotic actions by McBurney himself, and…well shit escalates quickly.
I’m letting you know upfront that things get wild with McBurney’s introduction as a favor to the film. Because the first thirty or forty minutes of this picture is a real slog. Keep in mind, I’m very much a fan of slow-burn dramas, but you need to actually have a measly little spark to keep me invested towards the beginning if I’m going to keep going with whatever a film has in store. Aside from McBurney being brought to the boarding school, not much happens for your first act of the film. I was really wondering where the film was going if it was perfectly content to see the everyday lives of these women. Maybe if there was more subtle changes in their behavior we as an audience could recognize would have been helpful, and I don’t mean the film telling you that their behavior is different. This is a cheap trick used by many a film, and if I’m not going to forgive those films, I’m not going to go easy on a critical darling either.
This weak first act is abated somewhat by the caliber of thespians you have on display. Farrell doesn’t have much to do in this portion of the film being bedridden and all, but I was quite interested by what was going on through Nicole Kidman’s and Kirsten Dunst’s characters’ heads. Dunst’s Edwina is clearly interested in a romantic getaway, being fed up with the mundane existence she found herself in. But Kidman’s Ms. Farnsworth was the most intriguing character for me in that she’s finding herself at the edge of her rope with the stress of the war all around her, caring for the various students left in her ward, and even looking to McBurney as a confidant being the only other adult with experience in their immediate vicinity. While Kidman does a bang up job in this role, the film oddly doesn’t pay that much attention to her. It tries to give all four of its leads ample to shine, and while I really loved where Dunst, Kidman and Farrell were going, Fanning’s character was given even less to do despite being placed into an important role in the second act of the film.
See Fanning’s Alicia macks on McBurney hard with seduction. Granted, it’s slightly scandalous to see what’s supposed to be a teenager tempt a man three times her age, which I suppose where all the “taboo” praises and critiques that I’ve seen of this movie are coming from. I’d agree with them…if the film had pushed any envelope at all. Yeah The Handmaiden this is not, it feels more like a PG-13 version of a raunchy sex thriller to be honest. Which is perfectly fine because maybe being taboo wasn’t a priority for the film. Because when the drama kicks in around the second act, I was rewarded with something just as fine – a good story.
The problem is that it takes way too long to get there. Once McBurney is invited to sit with the women at the dinner table, everything from that point on is a very clever build up of tension as these characters begin to mistrust each other, threaten each other’s lives, and toss out a few of their morals while they’re at it. This is where the women of the piece truly shine, and Farrell does a solid job as well. You’re very much charmed by him in the beginning, but you also recognize how much of a snake he really is. The far more interesting turn for me was not depicting him as some puppet master pitting these women against each other, but as a pathetic and absurdly insecure man. Such a turn would easy to flub, by Farrell does a commendable job to make you believe it.
Perhaps that was Sofia Coppola’s intention to write the women of The Beguiled as more sympathetic and much smarter than their counterparts in the original version. If that was the goal, then mission accomplished because she does a solid job. This film is really her best work since Lost in Translation…but it’s not strong enough that I can give a hearty recommendation to everyone. Coppola excels at building and unleashing tension with giving you technically proficient camerawork, but she really needed to tighten up this script. Maybe she was just trying to get this film up to feature film length and settled on everyday life of the characters for her first act. Perhaps if she had included more interactions between them, it would have made for a much stronger film.
As it stands, I thought it was solid enough for a watch, but not in theaters. This is a very good…