A Painted Devil, Cinema, Clint Eastwood, Colin Farrell, Elle Fanning, Fargo, Film, Film Review, Geraldine Page, John McBurney, Kirsten Dunst, Lost In Translation, Movie, Movie Review, Nicole Kidman, Sofia Coppola, The Beguiled, The Lobster, Thomas Cullinan
“The Beguiled” is the second film adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel (originally titled “A Painted Devil”), following the 1971 film of the same name which starred Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. In this film Colin Farrell plays John McBurney, an injured Union Corporal who finds shelter in a girls’ boarding school. Both the students and the teachers are drawn to the deserter, hiding his presence from Confederate soldiers and tending to his wounds. Sexual tension soon builds between McBurney and the residents, causing rifts between the women and leading to altercations which are far more amusing than they ought to be.
The main source of entertainment in this film comes from trying to decipher McBurney’s blurred motives. McBurney plays the women off one another constantly, letting each of them believe that they are in fact his favourite, but why he does this is never made completely clear. Is he trying to ensure that they don’t make him leave? Or does he just enjoy the thrill of the chase? We don’t know, and it’s this ambiguity which makes the film surprisingly watchable.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect going into this film because although I liked the cast I didn’t think that the plot sounded all that interesting. Still, Sofia Coppola directed “Lost in Translation” which is one of my favourite films, and she also won the award for Best Director at Cannes Film Festival this year for this movie, so I was willing to give it a chance.
After seeing it I still feel unsure, because although I thought that some of the shots were nice and I had a fun time watching it I’m not sure I liked it for the right reasons. Coppola seemed to want this film to feel claustrophobic and tense, yet I watched it like I would a dark comedy. I was laughing almost all of the time and I’m not talking about laughing due to discomfort or nervousness; I’m talking about the kind of laughter where you’re desperately holding in giggles and tears are hanging from your eyelashes. I genuinely thought that the actors’ delivery in this movie was hilarious, especially when they were at their most volatile, and I found the situation absurdly comical.
It’s unclear whether or not this was the response that Coppola was aiming for when she made this film – I’d have to ask her to find out and I don’t think that that’s going to happen anytime soon – but I can’t find anything online to suggest that my experience of the film aligned with her intentions.
I find it perplexing that actors like Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell were cast if Coppola didn’t want the audience to find this film amusing because they’ve both recently performed in roles where this kind of tone was desired. They both have large bodies of work of course, but Dunst’s performance in “Fargo” and Farrell’s turn in “The Lobster” show that they both know how to deliver comedic dialogue as characters who aren’t in on the joke.
It’s hard for me to know exactly what to say beyond this point because “The Beguiled” lives or dies depending on whether or not my reaction to its content was anticipated by the director, but I will say that Colin Farrell put in a good performance regardless of my response to the film. His character was very direct and forward throughout the movie and I think this suits Farrell as an actor; he’s at his best when he’s playing characters who aren’t particularly likeable because he’s still able to endear them to an audience and he certainly did that here.
I also enjoyed how the writers didn’t directly tell the audience who they were supposed to route for, because although McBurney was a bit of an arse he wasn’t exactly evil. He could’ve easily been a one-dimensional character had the writers approached the subject matter in a more straightforward way, but they did their best to make his motives ambiguous and give him a degree of believability. I appreciate this kind of approach because it puts you in the same mind-set as the characters you’re watching on screen and lets you share their experiences. The women in the boarding school didn’t know anything about McBurney other than what he told them and what they could pick up from his actions, so I think it’s only natural that we as audience members should be put in the same situation and come to our own conclusions, especially in a film which is linear and set in one location.
Some audience members will want to know more about both McBurney and the women in the house, but personally I can respect a film which doesn’t hold the audience’s hand and respects their intelligence, particularly after sitting through “War for the Planet of the Apes” this week.
I would concede that the female characters in the film could’ve had more personality because most of them had one dominant trait which informed their actions, but I think that in order to develop their characters further Coppola would’ve had to include more scenes where they were all together and this would’ve hurt the overall experience. The characters needed to be isolated with McBurney in one-on-one situations and to be easily swayed in order to progress the plot, so it’s hard to think of a way to give them more depth without hurting the narrative. Of course, I’m sure that with time and effort this could’ve been done, but as I write this review I don’t have the perfect solution which makes it harder to criticise Coppola’s approach.
To summarise, “The Beguiled” is a film which boasts a talented cast (Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, etc.) and is helmed by an acclaimed director, but the pieces don’t come together to make a cohesive whole. I had a great time watching it at the cinema but I don’t believe that what I took from the experience meshed with Sofia Coppola’s intentions. From a filmmaking perspective this is a good looking movie with a couple of standout scenes and some decent performances, but it isn’t exceptional in any way. I enjoyed it and I will watch it again when it’s released on DVD, but I wouldn’t recommend it to casual moviegoers.