Edwin Arnaudin: The Beguiled is the sixth film in Sofia Coppola’s generally well-received career. Does her name make you light up when it’s attached to a project or do you need additional factors to elevate your interest?
Bruce Steele: I’m not lighting up, and despite the stellar cast, I was not beguiled by The Beguiled. I skipped The Bling Ring, which got mediocre reviews and little buzz, and Marie Antoinette, which seemed like a stunt movie. So this was my first Sofia movie since Lost in Translation in 2003.
Edwin: The farther we get from Lost in Translation, the more I think its success was due to Bill Murray’s performance, not Coppola’s filmmaking. I’m not wild about The Virgin Suicides and with the exception of 2011’s underrated Somewhere, I’ve only liked pieces of her subsequent films. The Beguiled is well made and acted, but it feels a bit empty to me.
Bruce: Empty is a good word. It’s got atmosphere to spare and a thin plot, but little else. The tensions between the characters that should drive the narrative are implied but not dramatized.
Edwin: Agreed. The arrival of injured Union Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell, wisely allowed to use his natural Irish accent) at the Virginia boarding school for girls run by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) is akin to throwing a firecracker in a barn full of oily rags. Instead, his manipulation of his hosts feels undeveloped to the point that I wondered if pages of the script went missing during production.
Bruce: He woos all three older women — Martha, teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and teen student Alicia (Elle Fanning) — which ought to build a tense triangle of suspicion. But the rivalry never ignites. I haven’t read Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel or seen the 1971 adaptation with Clint Eastwood, but I have to blame the screenwriter here. And that would be Ms. Coppola.
Edwin: I likewise have no experience with either prior telling but I wonder what Coppola saw in them that made her want to try her hand at the material. By not ramping up the tension between the potential love interests nor forcing the younger students — among them the excellent Angourie Rice (The Nice Guys) as the musical Jane — to choose sides, is it just an excuse to dress up in period garb and explore Civil War era manners?
Bruce: I’m guessing from Coppola’s past movies that setting is everything to her: Tokyo, Versailles, Hollywood and now a gothic Louisiana mansion standing in for Virginia. She even dropped a young slave woman from the story because she thought it was too much for her to handle. Instead, there’s not enough going on for anyone except the cinematographer and costumer to make an impact.
Edwin: Like Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night) and Ana Lily Amirpour (The Bad Batch), Coppola makes good-looking films, but could use a lot of help in the screenplay department. Her latest work held my attention well enough, but mostly out of hope for a payoff that winds up being pretty unsatisfying. I give it a C-plus.
Bruce: Right. I was hoping a shocking finale or final twist might at least redeem the plot, but it just fizzles out. The talented cast elevates a few moments here and there, and it’s lovely to look out, otherwise it would rate even lower than the C I’m giving it.
Grade: C-plus. Rated R. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark and the Fine Arts Theatre.
Join the Asheville Movie Guys for a screening of The Beguiled at the Fine Arts Theatre on Monday, July 3, at 7:30 p.m. Bruce and Edwin will offer a brief introduction of the film and everyone is welcome to stay after the credits for a discussion. More info here.
(Photos: Ben Rothstein / Focus Features)