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The Beguiled

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Sofia Coppola’s career may have all been leading up to this. Her propensity to bring life to period settings in Marie Antoinette, her equally laconic and dreamlike approach to violence in The Virgin Suicides, and her feminist roots that have been fostered in each and every one of her films is all played pitch-perfectly in her new film, The Beguiled. The film is set in a girls’ school in the South during the American Civil War where seven women live alone. One day, one of the students comes across a wounded soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Yankee and the enemy, who they take in and care for. But the longer he stays, the higher tensions rise as the women’s competing desires begin to boil to the surface.

It is no wonder that Coppola won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival where The Beguiled was in competition for the prestigious Palm d’Or. There is a magnetism to this film that lures you in, scene after scene, deeper into its narrative. Part of this hypnotic quality comes from the cinematography of Philippe le Sourd (The Grandmaster). This is one of the most beautiful films out this year. The girls’ school, a huge estate trapped in the middle of a forest and the Civil War, is shut off from the world. Light attempts to pierce through the trees to no avail. A mystical fog constantly lingers. There is a sense of powerlessness to these women as they watch the distant smoke of battle slowly creeping in around them.

When they come across McBurney, the wounded soldier, they decide to take him in because of their Christian values, but also, though they never say it, because he is so handsome. It’s easy to imagine a different scenario where this film’s story would never have taken place, had the injured soldier been less appealing. But quickly, the girls realise that he is also a charmer and we, the audience, learn he is a liar. Within days he is spinning vastly different narratives to bring himself closer with each girl and woman. The main objects of his desire are the headstrong headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), her naïve assistant, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and the eldest and most troublesome of the students, Alicia (Ella Fanning).

Each actor and actress is perfect in their respective roles, particularly Colin Farrell who hasn’t been this good since his wonderful and yet starkly different role in In Bruges.

This film, like its protagonist, engages in a grand seduction. As the film moves along Coppola coils in, as, little by little, the girls’ original fears of the soldier are traded for lust and with each passing day, they are all falling under his spell. The quips they exchange with McBurney become more flirtatious and hide a deeper subtext, a deeper desire. In terms of pacing, thrillers do not get much better than this. The film is restrained and explosive at exactly the right moments.

But what the film is really about is female power. In a world where they would otherwise be powerless due to societal expectations and due to the expectations they impose upon themselves, these women rise up and face their fears head-on. In the last act of the film, they are truly something terrifying and inspiring to behold.

Lochley Shaddock is a novelist, essayist, film critic and screenwriter/director

 
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Daniel Monks and Stevie Cruz-Martin: Feeling the Pulse

Screening as part of the Screenability Stream at the Sydney Film Festival, Pulse is a transgressive, provocative and insightful look at disability, sexuality, and identity. We spoke to writer and star, Daniel Monks, and director, Stevie Cruz-Martin, about their debut feature.
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Lady Macbeth

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This film is based on the 1865 Russian novella Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov. The story has been transposed to north-eastern England, but it’s still set in the 19th century, with the prevalent oppression inducing a feeling of what might be called anti-nostalgia in the viewer. Geography aside it’s a fairly faithful version, but it’s not a very memorable one.

The titular ‘Lady’ is Katherine, a young woman who has been cruelly wed – by arrangement – to the monstrous Boris (Christopher Fairbank). They live in a remote and large but austerely furnished mansion, along with Boris’s tyrannical father who effectively rules the roost and is at least as repellent as him, and at first, we feel nothing but sympathy for the hapless Katherine. She becomes attracted to a worker on the estate, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), and without giving anything away it would be a massive understatement to say that she proceeds to forfeit the high moral ground. What follows is intense, stark and very occasionally gripping in a D.H. Lawrence/Thomas Hardy sort of way, but after reaching a plateau it becomes tedious. And it doesn’t help that, with the exception of the black servant Anna (Naomi Ackie), none of the characters is sympathetic.

Lady Macbeth’s greatest strength is striking and painterly cinematography, both inside the mansion and out in the wilds, and there are a few particularly beautifully composed and symmetrical shots. Florence Hugh’s acting is impressive too, and all the main players are good. But it’s not really enough, and the whole adds up to rather less than the sum of its parts.

 
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My Cousin Rachel

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

After his cousin and benefactor, Ambrose, dies in Italy, young Philip (Sam Claflin) is quite put out at the prospect of his widow, the titular Rachel (Rachel Weisz) coming to stay at the Cornwall manor he is now de facto lord over. He soon changes his tune because, well, it’s Rachel Weisz, but questions still hang over Ambrose’s death. Did he die of a brain tumour, as the death certificate states, or was he slowly poisoned by Rachel as his fevered letters suggest? Add to that the question of inheritance, with the now-besotted Philip determining to hand over Ambrose’s estate to the bereaved Rachel, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a delirious post-Gothic melodrama.

The thing is, you don’t just pile those ingredients up, you have to cook them and, to push the metaphor about as far as it will go, writer and director Roger Michell is a poor chef. In adapting Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 potboiler of the same name, Michell forgoes the essential element in transposing this kind of thing to the screen for a modern audience: tonal control. All those repressed desires and simmering tensions beneath the starched collars, the stolen glances across candlelit drawing rooms, start to seem pretty silly if they’re not handled deftly. And My Cousin Rachel is a very silly film. Sadly, it’s almost certain it doesn’t mean to be.

Poor Sam Claflin does what he can with the character of Philip, a spoilt man-baby who is either flouncing about being put out that Rachel is inserting herself into his No Girls Allowed country clubhouse, or else thirstily trying to insert himself in her once he gets a good look at her. His arc is unbelievably cartoonish, going from pining for the blatantly homoerotic relationship with his uncle in the opening scenes (a thread which is never picked up on again), to a willfully reckless hound dog in the back end, willing to throw everything away for the affections of his widowed house guest. It’s a path that might be convincingly followed on the page, but seems to be beyond the capabilities of any involved to evoke onscreen.

The ever-capable Weisz fares much better, but we are deliberately kept ignorant of her interior life, revelations about her actions and motives being key to the film’s climax. Of course, that means we’re left with Philip as our POV character, which becomes a case of the blind leading the bored. Still, we’re basically asked to stare at Weisz for long stretches of time to try and parse her intentions, and if that’s your thing, there’ll be something to enjoy here.

What’s particularly frustrating about My Cousin Rachel is the sense that there’s a good film to be mined from this material. The basic bones of the narrative take some of the more problematic elements of Gothic and Victorian literature – an uneasy sense of place, a mistrust of female sexuality and power, xenophobia bordering on outright racism, and some funny ideas about keeping it all in the family – and subverts a lot of it, but Michell fails to emphasise the right beats in a way that makes those themes hit home. What we’re left with is some really nice cinematography by Mike Eley (there are killer compositions here, to be fair), an increasingly annoying musical cue by Rael Jones (an earworm you’ll want to poison), and talented performers struggling to do their best.

Incidentally, it’s been 65 years between cinematic adaptations of My Cousin Rachel. Could be there’s a good reason for that.

 
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Churchill

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The year is 1944. After years of war, the Allies are preparing to invade mainland Europe to liberate it from Nazi occupation. While the American General Eisenhower (John Slattery) and his British counterpart, Montgomery (Julian Wadham) are committed to a massed amphibious assault, there is one hold out – British Prime Minister Churchill (Brian Cox). Still haunted by the failure of the Dardanelles campaign in the First World War, Chuchill urges a more cautious approach, but the clock is ticking and, let’s face it, if you don’t know what happened you should probably crack a book some time…

Given the choice between the dramatic and the historically accurate, historian Alex von Tunzelmann’s screenplay tends to err on the side of the latter, which means we get a lot of terse conversations in gorgeously appointed rooms (the production design is marvelous), but not much in the way of rising tension. Given the ultimate, well recorded final outcome of the events, the on screen result is that Churchill as presented is actually an obstacle to the narrative, with his opponents clearly on the right side of history, while the curmudgeonly PM comes across as yesterday’s news – something he feared in actual life.

Countering this tendency is a towering central performance by Cox, who imbues Sir Winston with humanity, fallibility, and a palpable sense of genius. It’s well known that Churchill was a depressive and a drunk, but it’s a rare performance that manages to marry those aspects with his public gravitas and gift for rhetoric, and Cox nails it.

He’s matched in every way by Miranda Richardson as his wife, Clementine, who tempers Churchill’s melancholic rages with a mix of hard-nosed pragmatism and warm understanding, even in the face of his often cutting obstinacy. A lot light is going to be shone on Cox’s turn here, but the real value of Churchill is in the interplay between these two; if we didn’t have Richardson’s Clementine on hand to demonstrate Churchill’s humanity and fragility, we wouldn’t be left with much.

As it is, though, even their sterling character work can’t shift Churchill out of the mid-range. While a successful work of portraiture, it fumbles the narrative ball pretty definitively, plodding along to reach a long-foregone conclusion. There’s enjoyment to be had out of seeing Cox and company inhabit these roles – it’s just a shame they don’t have a better movie wrapped around them.