Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Beguiled

It's three years into the Civil War and Martha Farnworth continues to run her school for girls after most of the students, staff, and slaves have left, leaving only Ewina Morrow and five students who have nowhere to go: Amy, Alicia, Jane, Emily, and Marie. Amy finds an injured Union soldier named Corporal John McBurney when picking mushrooms for dinner and helps him back to the school where they give him medical attention. He rests in a locked room while they decide what they want to do with him, but all visit him frequently and build a relationship with him. He fears returning to the war, but how far will he go to stay in the school?

Based on the advertising, I expected The Beguiled to be a thriller through and through. It turned out to be mainly a drama with a sprinkling of thriller in the latter half, so I was a little disappointed. However, the film won me over with its beautiful cinematography, gorgeous costumes, and nuanced performances from the actresses. So many screenshots were simply works of art that the slow pace was welcome to enjoy them. The costumes, while beautiful, aren't really realistic for the time. They would have had very few resources especially with very few if any paying students attending the school, so their beautiful clothing and full table don't seem realistic. Effort is made to show the students mending clothing, but even mended it wouldn't look that nice. It does give an almost fantastical air to the film and to the women with their similar blond hair and white clothing since they are so removed from the war that it rarely interacts with them directly at all.

Corporal McBurney's arrival is the most exciting thing to happen in the school in years as the sounds of war have become a dull backdrop to their lives. Not much is truly known about him since he puts on a different persona depending on his audience. Each of the women had a different type of attraction him based on their stage in life, which he is quick to exploit. Amy, the youngest of the main characters, has a bit of a crush and appreciates being spoken to as an adult and as a friend. He calls her his favorite and praises her whenever he can, making sure to be nonthreatening. Teenage Alicia lusts after him as her isolation has left her burgeoning sexuality with no outlet. McBurney is cordial to her in public and equally lustful behind closed doors. Edwina is an adult who wants romantic love and a husband to secure her future. She isn't able to achieve her ideal life with a family where she is. John plies her with romantic platitudes and promises of elopement. Martha is an older woman more interested in a worldly companion to share stories with, which John eagerly provides. He is a master manipulator and plies the women so he won't have to return to war.

As his injury heals, John tries to make himself indispensible to the household by working in the garden, an activity the women and girls don't have time for. His manipulations work wonders as the women make him fancy meals in their best finery and bicker with each other for his attention. His luck changes when he advances on Alicia and is caught by Edwina. A horrific accident follows leaving John with a leg severed at the knee. When he sees he can no longer get what he wants with flattery, he turns to violence and abuse. Most of the women reject him, but Alicia and Edwina still pursue him. They try to call for help, but John becomes more violent. The conclusion has all of the women (except Edwina) banding together to take care of their problem in way that John never expects. They take a stereotypically nurturing, feminine action/event and take the power and agency of themselves and their home back. I loved it and found it a powerful ending.

The Beguiled has a few flaws, but overall, it's a beautiful film that has two very different halves. The first is light and happy as John brings an excitement to the house that hasn't been seen in years. The second is dark as he turns to abuse to get what he wants after what he perceived as their attack. John would do whatever it takes to get what he wanted, but he underestimated the intelligence, ingenuity, and capability of the women who he masterfully manipulated. My only other criticism is that the story is pretty straight forward without any subplots to speak of that could have filled out the story a little more. Other than that, I would say it's a drama with a splash of thriller that is well worth your time.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

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