‘The Beguiled’: The Victorian Values Review

The second Victorian Values review is probably excessively-informed for a movie that has not even been officially released in Australian cinemas.  I knew I wanted to see this movie from the second it was described by Robbie Collin thusly:

It’s what we’re all here for, right? The teaser trailer above just reaffirmed that for me (I suggest avoiding other trailers if possible – I know it’s a remake but the later trailers give a lot of the game away). So I booked in for an advanced screening at one of my favourite Melbourne cinemas, The Lido, and then won tickets to a screening four days earlier. Yep, I saw this movie twice in one week. Now I’m here to tell you why you should go see it.

The movie is set in Virginia during the Civil War. Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) has kept her girls’ school open for a handful of students and a teacher (Kirsten Dunst) who have nowhere better to go. When one of the girls finds an injured Yankee soldier (Colin Farell) in the woods adjoining the school, their lives are turned upside down.

Possibly my favourite part of this movie was the visceral reactions it inspired. Partly I think the marketing has worked incredibly well (despite some spoiler-heaviness in the later trailers) – everyone at the first screening had somehow been primed to loathe Colin Farrell. Long, long before the movie gave them any real reason to do so. I have never seen a declaration of love be met with a cinema full of scoffs, but there’s a first time for everything. Be warned, many of the other audible reactions were to some rather loving shots of wounds. I’m sensitive to that sort of stuff so I used some rather judicious looking-at-the-back-of-that-person’s-head-over-there, but even the sounds were (realistically) revolting.

Next, this movie is tight. Even if your local cinema is indulgent with the trailers, you should be in and out in two hours. I’d accuse the film of having no filler, but at the second screening I was considering taking a count of the number of near-identical shots of the porch at the fictional Farnsworth Seminary that feature. The many exterior shots do however do the job of establishing the near-oppressive atmosphere of this micro-world. The hothouse environment is emphasised by a constant background soundtrack of booming combat on the nearby front, cicadas singing and frogs croaking. In this environment, we find female sexuality blooming in the unexpected presence of an injured soldier.

While the movie does have a darkly comedic tone (often relating back to female sexuality, competition, and power), I found Elle Fanning’s teen temptress broad in a way that did not fit in to the tone of the film at first. She lacks the depth hinted at by the more experienced actresses. On my second viewing, I felt that her character fit quite well in to Coppola’s oeuvre – after all, the disaffected, languorous flirt is not a world away from the character Dunst was playing for Coppola eighteen years ago (my apologies if you were just made deeply aware of your own mortality) in The Virgin Suicides. Nonetheless, given the effort this film makes to tell the story from the female perspective (unlike the 1971 original), it would have been rewarding to see more from this character.


Just a nice casual dinner

One of the things I discussed with a friend after the first screening is the renewing revelation of Nicole Kidman. How somehow finding that you enjoy her work is surprising, over and over again. It seems that she has somehow been shoehorned in to the wrong roles over the years, but is at her best nowadays when she can put forth a steeliness which is greatly used here (I also loved her brittle turn in Lion). As the protective headmistress she wages an internal battle between her urge to see the enemy soldier out the house, and the mounting desire to have him stay. Three years in to a war is a long time, after all. Kirsten Dunst also deserves credit for her turn as the teacher Edwina. In her, every woman can see the part of herself who falls for the classic fuckboy charms (and we can all acknowledge Colin Farrell is annoyingly charming, yet the dangerous side of Corporal John McBurney comes as no surprise when it emerges).

All I wanted to know when I saw the trailer above is what those ‘vengeful bitches’ had done to him, but I’m not going to let you in on that. This is a movie to immerse yourself in. How an atmospherically languid film manages to ratchet up the tension in the way it does is masterful. I would strongly suggest not watching the original film or the latter trailers before going to see it – the audience reactions (including my own!) as the film takes its twists and turns, enhanced by the dark comedy, were all I needed to know that this film is best seen unspoilered. But given the main competition at the Australian box office for The Beguiled will be a teenage boy slinging webs, and a young man driving a baby around (presumably – terrible name), don’t you just want to see a fuckboy taken down for once?

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Katie Sparkes

A Romantic Realist

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