the beguiled women

***1/2 (out of five)

Sofia Coppola’s new Beguiled, crediting both the 1966 novel and the 1971 screenplay as source material, is a surprisingly snappy and relentlessly atmospheric slice of “Southern Gothic”. Although Coppola and her cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd gleefully fetishise the Spanish moss, southern live oak trees and glamorously decaying architectural features of their gorgeous south Louisiana plantation locations, Coppola and her editor, Sarah Flack, refuse to dwell on them. The melodramatic, sultry story takes precedence over the pretty pictures, marking what some will claim as a maturing of Coppola’s style (I will), while some may miss the lugubriousness of The Virgin Suicides, which is her closest film, aesthetically and thematically, to this one.

Top-billed Colin Farrell plays a wounded Union soldier who is sheltered within a grand girl’s seminary in Virginia. The small group of women living there claim it is Christian values keeping them from immediately handing him over to the Confederate soldiers – their soldiers – who are omnipresent nearby and who routinely check in on the women at the seminary gates. In reality, it is sexual desire. Farrell’s entrance into the house sets each and every one of their hearts and other parts aflutter, and as they individually make plays for his affection, so too he, as clever as he is handsome, plays them off against each other. Of course, this is southern gothic, and you don’t need to be Tennessee Williams to know what kind of trouble all this furtive flirting may lead to.

TheBeguiled colin and kirsten

The film is completely apolitical. Coppola has said as much in multiple interviews, and also freely discussed shooting Farrell with an unapologetically objectifying gaze. He does look too gorgeous for the given circumstances – his haircut, for one thing, is too sharp for a soldier’s shears – but thankfully he doesn’t have the modern Hollywood Male Body, which would have made him ludicrous (that said, his body looks fantastic, just not condom-full-of-walnuts). The film is also not particularly interested in history and certainly not the details of the war (the Louisiana locations, with their hanging moss, even defy the vegetation of Virginia). Really, the film is set in an American south during an American Civil War; it is abstracted, fairy-tale.

The plot and motivations are melodramatic and overcooked, deliberately and enjoyably. Each of four generations of actresses gets to have enormous fun straining their desire against their tight corsets: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Australia’s own Angourie Rice, who remains uncannily brilliant in her mid-teens. If anything, I would have liked to see all of them allowed perhaps ten percent more scenery to chew; because the film is so fast (it’s all done and dusted in 93 minutes) their motivations seem to be a step behind their actual actions. I actually suspect that a lot more was shot, with the intention of letting the film breathe and luxuriate in the style of The Virgin Suicides, and then a radical decision was made to accelerate everything in the editing suite. If true, that choice may have made for a few jarring moments, but has resulted in Coppola’s leanest, meanest film, and one that is less an objet d’art than a guilty pleasure.

The Beguiled Clint
Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page in the 1971 version.

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**** (out of five)

The storytelling in Lion is a triumph of taste over temptation. The source material, the non-fiction 2014 book by Saroo Brierley A Long Way Home, was ripe for bombastic, sensational, sentimental treatment. Instead, director Garth Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies have delivered the tasteful version, one that avoids practically all the story’s potential landmines in lieu of honest emotion. It is a film of great integrity.

Brierley was brought up in Tasmania having been adopted from Calcutta at around five years old. He had been separated from his birth family in bizarre, practically tragicomic circumstances; twenty-five years later, he used Google Earth to attempt to find them again.

The film is structured in two halves. The first – and most successful – follows Saroo, at age five, in India. Saroo is played by Sunny Pawar, who is one of those kids – found after a massive casting process in India – who just nails it. He’s incredible, traversing a mostly dialogue-free hour without missing a single beat. Every shot he’s in contains emotional truth and credibility, but – like all great actors! – there’s a second, underlying layer going on, in which he deftly adds degrees of comic grace. It’s astonishing. There is one wordless close-up that took my breath away, before I practically started chanting, “Give him the Oscar, now!”

The second half sees a grown-up Saroo played by Dev Patel, who easily gives his finest performance to date. He’s completely believable as an Australian-raised Indian born fellow, Aussie accent and all, despite being a Brit. More importantly, the sometimes over-earnestness he’s delivered in many of his roles – the worst examples being in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel franchise – is absent here. He gives a delicate performance of subtlety and grace.

Grace is also the word for the remarkable screenplay, which should definitely be a front-runner for the Adapted Screenplay Oscar come late February. Australian novelist / screenwriter / poet / critic Davies (Candy, Life) skips the expository scenes lesser films would show and rewards our intelligence with unexpected moments that are so much more revealing. Thus the salacious and sensational perils young Saroo faces as an orphan in Calcutta – forced mutilation as part of a begging ring, sexual slavery – are dealt with glancingly, almost quietly, certainly – here’s that word again! – tastefully. In the second half, Saroo forms a relationship with a fellow student, Lucy (Rooney Mara), but Davies spares us any scenes of them flirting, kissing for the first time, falling in bed together; he knows we understand all that stuff, and that it’s not what this story is really about. His screenplay is a monument to narrative elision.

The film comes close to being an instant classic. It’s hampered by two things. The first is almost unavoidable – that the underlying story, and the film’s promotion, have given us the ending in advance, which really does sap the film of suspense. It’s got a lot of elements – especially heart – but suspense isn’t one of them. It must be said, it would have taken an almost superhuman effort of collective restraint on the hands of marketers, producers and media to avoid this.

The second is that the film drops its energy for a long stretch in the second half. There are scenes where Mara’s Lucy – already the least defined character in the script – is, essentially, inaudible (and I was seeing the film in the best possible circumstances, a critic’s screening room), and around her, other members of the cast are allowed to deliver their lines so quietly as to cause one to strain to hear (which affects tremendously Kidman’s big monologue, which also feels – weirdly for a film of such taste – like Oscar-bait). During this section, the storytelling loses specificity. I was honestly but not deliberately confused for a period as to whether Saroo was living in Hobart or Melbourne, for example.

Ultimately though, the film is a triumph. You will weep like a ninny (I did) and it will feel good. I suspect it’s going to be an enormous financial success in Australia, where the Indian sections may sit more comfortably than, say, for a mass-market, mainstream American audience. I also think it has a very good chance of destabilising some of the front-runners at the Oscars. It is a very fine film, and Davis and Davies have proved an exceptional collaboration. See it.

UPDATE: I was spot-on about its Aussie Box Office appeal —



Secret In Their Eyes


In 2010, I wrote of El Secreto De Sus Ojos, “It is a superb film, an incredibly rich and moving crime thriller telling a story both in the present and twenty-five years in the past, utilising the streets of Buenos Aires to maximum effect and deploying some of Argentina’s finest actors … [It] transcends its crime-novel beginnings … and resonates as much emotionally as viscerally. Never sordid, gratuitous or dishonest, this is a thoroughly satisfying, big-meal of a movie for adults to savour.”

That film won the Best Foreign Language Oscar that year, beating Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Jaques Audiard’s A Prophet. Considering the artistic and intellectual heft of those films, and the regard in which their directors were held, this was quite something, for we’re talking, at essence, of a police procedural – not usually Oscar material. But this film was special. It had an astonishingly brilliant plot – far, far superior to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which was the other pulp novel whose film adaptation(s) transcended the material – and a very particular mood. It was seriously melancholy, full of dashed love as well as bad crime; it was methodical, measured, intellectually stimulating and thoughtful; and it was gorgeously shot. It was one of the film experiences of the year and I’ve never forgotten it.

The good news is that this remake, as completely redundant as it is, honours the tone and spirit of the original and, most importantly, doesn’t screw with the incredibly plotted story. The astonishing twists and turns are all there and I had an excellent couple of hours experiencing them all again, akin to listening to a really good and faithful cover version of a brilliant song. Director Billy Ray aims for that measured, melancholic mood and pretty darn well achieves it, aided immeasurably by a superb lead performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, who surely must now be counted as one of our great screen actors, and who gets my vote for the next Bond (because come on, Idris Elba is too big – if Bond can beat up the henchmen, what’s the point of his brain, or the gadgets?)

Nicole Kidman gives admirable support in yet another very smartly chosen role, one that reflects her status as a great maturing beauty with a kind of dignified acknowledgement. On the other hand, the make-up department has gone a little overboard turning Julia Roberts, in a smaller role, into a real Plain Jane. Even cops can be pretty. In fact, in Hollywood remakes, they usually are. This remake may be unnecessary, but it’s good. In fact, it’s very good – even if you fondly remember the original.



**** (out of five)

Kim Farrant’s debut feature Strangerland has high ambitions. It wants to be associated with Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake In Fright, Walkabout and The Last Wave – great Australian films that explore the mysterious, creepy energy of Australia’s innards – the outback, and / or the regions that lie close to it.

It succeeds. Strangerland is a bold, extremely accomplished and confident first feature from director Kim Farrant and screenwriters Fiona Seres and Michael Kinirons (it should be noted that Seres was the instigator of the story). It tackles fascinating and unique themes, the most provocative being, is sexuality an appropriate response to tragedy, trauma and grief?

Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes play the Parkers, the delicately disengaged parents of a pre-teen son and an all-too-teen girl (Maddison Brown, in a career-making debut). They’ve moved to a very isolated town for reasons that we will learn, and the move will decimate their lives.

Hugo Weaving plays a local cop who becomes deeply involved in their situation, and it’s the best role I’ve seen him in in ages. He’s just terrific, at ease and fluid, open and free, as a lanky, robust outback policeman who suddenly has a real case to deal with – along with the accompanying personalities. Given a wide-open landscape, a nice beard and a generous character, he flows, freely, givingly. It’s a great performance.

So is Kidman’s. She constantly needs to come back to Australia to give her best, it seems, and she does so here. It’s a cracker of a role and she gives it her all. Catherine Parker is a an extremely well-written character, driving the emotional subtleties of the film with fascinating contradictions. Kidman hits every note, and those notes entail some very challenging scenes. She dominates the film, and she should – it’s about her.

As Lily, the extremely present Maddison Brown makes an important feature debut. She carries the film’s first act off naturally, with the confidence of someone who is only just discovering what it means to be attractive, confident and skilful: there is connection here between actor and role. Joseph Fiennes, saddled with the least fleshed out of the major roles, is a terrific piece of casting: his otherness in this world (simply by being English) is deeply entwined with the currants of the film, and his surprising bursts of anger are unexpected for those of us who have pigeonholed him to Shakespeare In Love. Mayne Wyatt also gives an excellent, complex performance.

Strangerland is a terrific beast: it’s got a foot in each of the commercial and arthouse camps, and is entertaining in both. It knows exactly what it’s doing at each and every turn. It is assured, confident and well constructed. It is also gripping, thrilling, creepy and exciting. See it.