Boy in the wood

SOUTHERN belles and gender politics. Photograph courtesy

PICTURE THE SCENARIO: It’s the time of the American Civil War. An exclusive coterie of Southern virginal young women live together in an isolated house on the brink of a wood. One day one of them discovers a wounded soldier among the mushrooms. Garbed in blue, he’s of the Northern ranks: An enemy in terms of gender and ideology. But he’s wounded. This is the central premise to Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, which recently released on Showmax.

On a level, this period piece is like the makings of some kind of porn fantasy or vampirish one, where the young women in question are bursting with hormones and hungers, and the man is a hapless victim with a sore leg which prevents him from fleeing at great speed. On another, and given the plot spoiler-rich trailer, it evokes the bloody bits in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, but with less elegance and even less narrative sophistication. The Beguiled even, to an extent, feels as though it suggests tendrils to the old fair tales which offer the wood and its contents as metaphor. But alas. What begins as a humanitarian quandary ends with a mess, a big knife and an anatomy book.

With Colin Farrell as the man who experiences everything these nubile young creatures have to offer him, including their love and hate, the work teeters on the brink of art house films. It’s pretty and carefully constructed. The cast are all beautiful in their individual ways. Buttoned up to the neck and down to the wrists, they’re like Victorian harlots (or harlots to be) behind closed doors. And with a strict Nicole Kidman at the head of this exclusive school-cum-boarding house and Kirsten Dunst as the potential love interest, to say nothing of the Elle Fanning character who is bursting out of her knickers to get to the boy in blue, many grubby faux erotic images are evoked, constructed and implied in the work’s folds and interstices.

And just when you are anticipating a denouement that offers some kind of human, political, intellectual – anything – context to this seriously flimsy plot, it turns into a blood-spattered bitch fest or a sequence of unfortunate events, depending on where you sit. This film sets you up to expect something with a smidgeon of substance somewhere it in lavish trajectory, but it’s a promise unhonoured.

The Beguiled (2017) is directed by Sofia Coppola and features a cast headed by Joe Albin, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Colin Farrell, Emma Howard, Nicole Kidman, Oona Laurence, Wayne Pére, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Matt Story. Written by Sofia Coppola, Irene Kamp and Albert Maltz, based on the eponymous novel by Thomas Cullinan, it is produced by Sofia Coppola and Youree Henley, and features creative input by Phoenix (music), Philippe Le Sourd (cinematography), Sarah Flack (editing), Courtney Bright and Nicole Daniels (casting), Anne Ross (production design) and Stacey Battat (costumes). It is available on ShowMax.

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