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Movie Review: #TheBeguiled

The Civil War-era drama The Beguiled reeks with a molasses-like pace and a fixation on empty moments.

Review by Matt Cummings

The idea of Counter Programming at the domestic box office is not a new thing. Most of the time it works: pair a film made for kids with another just for the adults, and you have a successful evening out. Unfortunately, the disease that has become the 2017 Summer box office has infected so many releases that audiences are likely to stay home. Such is the case with The Beguiled, a movie with tremendous potential that dotes and doddles for 93 minutes before giving us a totally empty ending.

Just one year before the end of The Civil War, and Southern plantations aren't the only ones to suffer from a lack of slaves. Even female boarding houses like the one run by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) are shoddy remnants of their former selves. Battles seem to happen near them quite often, and soon it deposits the injured Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in its wake. A young student (Oona Laurence) brings the injured man home, only to gain the ire of Miss Martha. But the other girls - including Edwina (Kristen Dunst) and Alicia (Elle Fanning) - are instantly taken with him. The sexual tension - pushed by the traitorous McBurney - elevates, leading one girl after another to hope for a late-night visit. But when an unexpected moment turns the house upside down, McBurney is cast into madness, forcing the women to take drastic actions to stop him from killing them.

Director Sofia Coppola's sixth film struggles to keep our attention, opting for many, many moments of Southern life over telling a real story. Your proof arrives early and often in the script by Coppola and Writer Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp. There, we hear of seemingly important conversations between Ferrell and Laurence that are instead summarized by the girl later on. Then, it's off to the lookout station and digging holes. Lots of them. Or cutting trees. Such is the pace of The Beguiled that one wonders whether an actual story will take place. Soon, one arrives but many of the characters - smitten with the opposite sex - aren't given much to do. One scene late in the third act - a fornication soon after one takes over the seminary - is particularly empty. Sure, there's moments when the two express their love for the other, but based on the fit of violence that takes place in the previous scene, the coitus comes across as entirely unrealistic. Moreover, there's no reason for it to happen in the first place, and there's no consequence from it.

But it's not like this very capable troupe isn't trying to elevate things. Kidman is 19th Century Victorian Belle to a tee, while Laurence once again turns in another great performance as the naive Amy. She sees McBurney as her hero, and to watch that slowly fade away is perhaps the film's strongest part. Fanning is exceptional in her seductive slow burn (see The Neon Demon), but here she's just an oversexualized misfit who should be banned from the seminary because of her effect on others. Dunst is supposed to be playing a younger woman here, but she's missed the boat on playing those roles now, and so she becomes something of a spinster, and that doesn't suit her at all. We come to this conclusion because for most of The Beguiled, her intentions and desires are ultimately unknown. She wants an end to The Civil War, but who didn't at that time? So when it's time for her take charge of her life, we're not sure why she's made the choice at all. The same can be said for Ferrell's McBurney. His demise perhaps rings the emptiest, because we simply don't have any investment in him. To us, he becomes stain to be cleaned off the wall, rather than a sympathetic villain which we can debate after the lights have come up.

What does work in The Beguiled is the incredible production design by Anne Ross and Costume Designer Stacey Battat. Both deserve Oscar consideration, as it's the most authentic portrayal of Civil War-era environments that I've seen in recent memory. Night scenes are lighted entirely by candlelight, and day scenes produce stark lighting through the windows to reveal gorgeous sets and dresses. But we're ultimately here for story, and that's where The Beguiled fails so miserably. Instead of revealing intent and history, it plods on with girls raking, and pruning, and fetching water. I get it: times were tough, but we don't need minutes of each of these and other chores rather than getting meaningful character development.

For all the beauty behind The Beguiled, it lacks a sense of richness in its storytelling. Characters are underserved, and their intentions are not at all clear, leading to an ending that feels underwhelming, especially the end image that's supposed to demonstrate female power over the situation. The effect is choppy, because it's once again not about the characters but the mood. Production design and attention to era lifestyles is appreciated, and while critics are raving over it, I'm not. Skip this Virginia bore and have your own party. It should be far more entertaining than this dull molasses drip.

The Beguiled is rated R for some sexuality and has a runtime of 93 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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