Review-The Beguiled (directed by Sofia Coppola)

 

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It is a brave move to put an Independent film against the might of the summer blockbuster brigade and the potential rays of sunshine that dampen the crowds of the cinema. But a new Sofia Coppola film will always rear the heads of the critics and her ardent admirers who will help form an audience in the face of adversity.  It also helps that her latest, The Beguiled, is coming off the back of rave reviews at Cannes and Coppola’s win as best director, the second female to ever to win the accolade.

Based on the 1966 Thomas P Cullinan novel, The Beguiled begins in 1864, three years into the Civil war, where we are thrust into the heartland of the southern Virginia. A young girl walks between the weeping willows of the forest, a hazy beam of light piercing between the trees whilst the sound of cannon fire is heard in the distance. As she gathers mushrooms in a basket, a figure appears from behind a tree, a wounded Yankee soldier who begs for her aid. She helps him back to the large, white pillared plantation looking ladies’ seminary, a place of refuge and restraint for a group of young girls who seemingly have nowhere else to go and who are under the charge of headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). Following Ms Farnsworth’s lead who warns the girls to be wary of the soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), they at first treat him with caution and distain, but are all able to demonstrate Christian charity by nursing him back to health before turning him over to the confederate troops.

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As McBurney embeds into their hospitality and tends to their flowerbeds, his presence begins to affect the girls and the women of the house, bringing buried emotions to the surface in some and stirring the emergence of sexual awakenings in others. McBurney’s intentions appear to be focused on Farnsworth’s subordinate Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), but as his gaze lingers on the younger Alicia (Elle Fanning) who makes her desires crystal clear to McBurney, he begins to stir dangerous rivalries and set a course of irrevocable consequences.

Coppola’s southern melodrama is a melting pot of sexual repression and tension, where emotions teeter on their repercussive brink. A scene where Kidman’s tightly browed headmistress baths the wounded McBurney simmers with languid desire, which by its end; the audience may well be wiping their own brow. Echoing the themes of her previous film The Virgin Suicides, where a group of girls become imprisoned within a world which becomes their own microcosm, it also evokes shades of Black Narcissus whose remotely stationed nuns begin to question their vows of celibacy upon the arrival of a government worker. Shooting on film and using her trademark dreamy cinematography, the seeping of gauzy light filters into their world of starch upper collars and southern belle decorum. Surprisingly for a director whose work is synonymous with cleverly crafted soundtracks, The Beguiled features minimal music, even the presence of French electro band Phoenix does not pierce the air with contemporary sounds.

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The cast embody their characters perfectly, shifting their tones as their burgeoning desires materialise. Kidman is a droll delight as the authority figure whose upturned brow can belie her sly intentions. Farrell veers from wounded sensitivity to a roguish charmer and then to emasculated anger with ease. His hairy, darker complexion contrasting with the milky porcelain skin of the women who he thinks are his heavenly creatures under his spell but soon comes to realise that he is the prey. Dunst is quietly affecting as the prim teacher who wants to escape the seminary, her down turned demeanour temporarily lifted by the promise of a getaway with McBurney whilst Fanning has mischievous fun as the gym slip temptress. Though the best moments of the film are when the ensemble comes together, the interaction used through subtle airs and graces and telling glances speaks volumes of their internal cravings. A candlelight dinner scene in particular, where the girls fawn over McBurney and try to outdo each over an apple pie is a master class in thinly concealed jealousy.

Cullinan’s novel has been filmed before, a 1971 version directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood leaned more towards horror and fed on male paranoia. Coppola has said that she has not remade the film version but adapted the original source material. However it is hard for some not to compare the two, particularly as this time we see things from the female perspective. Coppola brings a stripped back, nuanced air to the proceedings, one that may not create new converts to her world of cinema and which may alienate fans of the Eastwood version. But to those well versed in the Coppola canon, there is much to relish in her seductive southern tale. As Ms Farnsworth tells the girls ‘the enemy is not what we believed’.

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Review- Midnight Special (directed by Jeff Nichols)

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In the short space of three films, Jeff Nichols has established himself as a director worthy of the term auteur, bringing emotional depth and lyrical storytelling to his work. From the anxiety inducing allegory of paranoia in rural America in Take Shelter (2011) to the Southern coming of age soul of Mud (2012), he skilfully blends heart with added dimensional undercurrents. With his fourth feature Midnight Special, Nichols continues to build upon his impressive cinematic catalogue, this time dipping his toes into the science fiction genre pool but without sacrificing his knack for emotive integrity.

The film begins with a news report of child abduction but the pieces of the story begin to form a different picture. A child has been taken, from a dubious settling known as The Ranch populated by a set of deeply religious members, but the child, eight year old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher),  was taken by his birth father  Roy (Michael Shannon) for his own protection and for Alton’s own purpose. It is revealed that Alton possesses otherworldly powers, his condition and capabilities grow and emerge further, a fact that makes him a target for both the Ranch, who believe he is their religious savour and for the FBI who believe he is a threat amidnight groupnd a potential weapon.

What follows is a race against time as Roy, accompanied by his former childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a state trooper who is affected by his predicament and who believes in Alton’s plight, head across the Southern landscape to reach a preordained destination  whilst being tailed by government officials and a couple of sinister Ranch members. If these narrative tropes seem familiar, those expecting bold brass sci-fi action may be disappointed because what emerges is something altogether different but all the more rewarding for it. The film adopts a slow burn journey that cares as much about the family drama at the heart of the matter as its bolder story arch and allows its actors to inhabit their characters. Michael Shannon who is Nichols go to guy, again displays why he is one of the best and most underrated actors around with a performance that speaks so much with so little words. His expressions and mannerisms belie the inner turmoil he is wrestling; every pained breath discloses the duality of Roy’s situation, his sorrow and his determination.  When Roy tells Alton ‘I like worrying about you’ Shannon echoes the words that many parents must feel, that it is their job to protect their child, no matter where the consequences will take them. Kirsten Dunst continues her semi renaissance after Fargo with a contrasting sensitive turn as Alton’s mother who was exiled from the Ranch and has a fleeting reunion with her son, avoiding sentimentality. Joel Edgerton is on solid form as the type of friend we would hope to have in a desperate situation-proactive and resourceful; his limited knowledge of Alton’s back-story doesn’t prevent him from believing in his purpose. Adam Driver portrays a sense of earnestness and heart that is a million galaxies away from Kylo Ren, his Adam Sevier is the type of government agent we would hope to have in a desperate situation, he wants to understand Alton and not merely contain him. Meanwhile Jaeden Lieberher sidesteps the precocious child act that Haley Joel Osment cornered once upon a time to deliver a naturalistic performance beyond his years/this world. midnight drive

The effects tend to serve the film rather than overshadow it, the early restraint gives way to a flourish in the final act yet we never descend into over reliance of CGI which is something to be commended and something to be thankful for in this cinematic age. The aesthetic and themes of Midnight Special have drawn comparisons to late 1970s/early 80s science fiction films particularly those of Spielberg and it is easy to see why, the DNA of Close Encounters and ET weave into its fabric, though Nichols should be celebrated for bringing his own vision and not merely emulating his peers. He has created a film of hope, of earnestness in a somewhat cynical time, one that will no doubt confound as many as it will attract, for it does not unravel all of its mysteries.

But the point is not to have all the answers, it is merely a snapshot of time, we as the audience experience what Alton’s parents do, the uncertainty of the situation, trying to form a grasp of the events-how and why did Alton come to be and where is he headed, yet we are not given the bigger picture. We can only go so far along the journey and the rest, like many things in life, has not been written.