Beauty can’t out­shine the bland

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

In 1970, Clint East­wood was at the height of his pop­u­lar­ity as an ac­tor. Against the odds, his tril­ogy of Ital­ian spaghetti west­erns had made him an in­ter­na­tional suc­cess, and he’d re­turned to Hol­ly­wood to work with one of Amer­ica’s best main­stream di­rec­tors of the pe­riod, Don­ald Siegel, on Coogan’s Bluff and Two Mules for Sis­ter Sara. He had started his own pro­duc­tion com­pany, Mal­paso, and within a year would make one of his great­est suc­cesses, Dirty Harry. In 1972 he would di­rect for the first time ( Play Misty for Me). In the mean­time he teamed with Siegel for the third time on The Beguiled, a Mal­paso pro­duc­tion based on a 1966 novel, The Painted Devil, by Thomas P. Cul­li­nan and a screen­play by the for­merly black­listed writer Al­bert Maltz (with Irene Kemp).

As you might ex­pect, this civil war drama was a very male-ori­ented af­fair, with the fo­cus firmly on East­wood’s char­ac­ter, John McBur­ney, a wounded Union sol­dier who is given shel­ter by the head­mistress of an iso­lated south­ern academy for young women. As played by East­wood, McBur­ney was a liar and a cheat from the start, but he was also able to ca­jole and charm each of the women in the es­tab­lish­ment. The in­flu­ences at the time seemed to have been Pier Paolo Pa­solini’s Te­o­rema and the vin­tage Hol­ly­wood melo­drama King’s Row. It was rather hokey but very well made and deliri­ously en­ter­tain­ing.

Sofia Cop­pola’s re­make of The Beguiled, which she scripted and which won her the best di­rec­tor prize at Cannes a cou­ple of months ago, is un­der­stand­ably tilted more to­wards the fe­male char­ac­ters. That’s fair enough, and she has an ex­cel­lent cast at her dis­posal: Oona Lau­rence as Amy, the lit­tle girl who finds McBur­ney in the woods while she’s pick­ing mush­rooms and helps him back to the gothic an­te­bel­lum man­sion where the Sem­i­nary for Young Ladies is lo­cated; Ni­cole Kid­man, in ex­cel­lent form as Miss Martha Farnsworth, who owns and op­er­ates the sem­i­nary; Kirsten Dunst as Ed­wina, one of the teach­ers, and the one most smit­ten with the charm­ing stranger; Elle Fan­ning as Ali­cia, the teenage flirt who seems to have few of the in­hi­bi­tions of a well brought up young woman of the era; and An­gourie Rice as Jane, an­other pupil — the young Aus­tralian ac­tress so mem­o­rable as Ryan Gosling’s re­source­ful daugh­ter in The Nice Guys and as the girl­friend in Jasper Jones is, un­for­tu­nately, given lit­tle to do. And then there’s Colin Farrell as McBur­ney, a less com­plex charmer than the char­ac­ter East­wood por­trayed, though it’s easy to see why the women, of all ages, would be cap­ti­vated by his Ir­ish charm.

Rather than aim for the gothic, down and dirty ap­proach of Siegel, Cop­pola goes for lan­guid sen­su­al­ity. Philippe Le Sourd’s cam­era glides through the moss-cov­ered, sun-dap­pled trees or wor­ships the beau­ti­ful women in their white dresses in in­te­ri­ors lit only by can­dles. It’s all very beau­ti­ful and just a tad dull. Siegel and East­wood suc­ceeded in mak­ing a ripe melo­drama, and a stylish one; Cop­pola’s film is un­de­ni­ably stylish but it could have done with a bit more grit.

The ques­tion that’s never re­ally ad­dressed is whether McBur­ney de­serted the Union Army be­cause he’s a cow­ard or be­cause his wound forced him to fall back and he was sim­ply left be­hind. Given that in this ver­sion of the story the char­ac­ter is a re­cent ar­rival to the US from Dublin, per­haps the truth lies in the fact he’s not very con­cerned about the out­come of the con­flict — only to stay alive and earn his wages as a sol­dier. When Miss Farnsworth cleans his near-naked body with a damp sponge the erotic na­ture of the process is made much of, but some­how in 1970 a sim­i­lar scene was more dis­turb­ing, prob­a­bly due to the fact sex in the cin­ema hadn’t yet reached the level it has to­day.

To­wards the end, the hith­erto lan­guid pace picks up a lit­tle for the dra­matic scenes that fol­low a sym­bolic act of cas­tra­tion, but ad­mir­ers of the orig­i­nal film prob­a­bly won’t be im­pressed with the way Cop­pola man­ages to turn such a volatile nar­ra­tive into some­thing frankly rather bland. How­ever, if you’re un­fa­mil­iar with the orig­i­nal, this taste­ful and un­de­ni­ably beau­ti­ful film may well be­guile you. De­fi­ant Lives is a doc­u­men­tary fea­ture about the cam­paign to gain rights for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties: as one com­men­ta­tor says near the be­gin­ning, “We want dis­abil­ity power so we can change things.”

A great deal of Sarah Bar­ton’s film uses ar­chive video footage of past protests, es­pe­cially the pe­riod dur­ing which peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties chal­lenged the au­thor­i­ties dur­ing the Carter and Bush Sr pres­i­den­cies, de­mand­ing wheel­chair ac­cess to pub­lic trans­port and pub­lic build­ings. These protests proved an in­spi­ra­tion to ac­tivists in Aus­tralia and Britain, and footage of their protests is also in­cluded.

The sec­tion of the film I found most re­veal­ing was that in­volv­ing the cel­e­brated Jerry Lewis telethons that raised money for mus­cu­lar dys­tro­phy suf­fer­ers. I had al­ways as­sumed that these tele­vi­sion events were a force for good, rais­ing, as they did, large sums of money; and that Lewis, an ac­tor who gave the im­pres­sion of be­ing com­mit­ted to good causes (in con­trast to his cheer­fully dis­so­lute for­mer part- Above, from left, Kirsten Dunst, Ad­di­son Riecke, An­gourie Rice and Emma Howard (both stand­ing), Ni­cole Kid­man and Elle Fan­ning in The

left, Colin Farrell in a scene from the film ner, Dean Martin) would be a hero of the dis­abled. Not so. The com­plaint made here is that the money raised from the telethons went to re­search, and there­fore to doc­tors and med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties, not to the suf­fer­ers them­selves. Lewis is found to be pa­tro­n­is­ing to­wards the peo­ple he aimed to help.

Bar­ton also takes to task the Miss Aus­tralia Quest, which un­til 2000 raised money for what used to be called spas­tics. Ad­mit­tedly, the footage of a “typ­i­cal” gala evening hosted by Barry Crocker looks pretty cringe-mak­ing when seen from this dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. Needless to say, the so-called spas­tics them­selves were not in­vited to these soirees.

The film delves into the sorry his­tory of so­ci­ety’s deal­ing with the dis­abled, who in the past of­ten were con­fined to in­sti­tu­tions and in­sane asy­lums. The main aim of many dis­abled peo­ple fea­tured in the film is to be al­lowed to live in their own homes, out­side the prison-like places where they were for­merly housed.

I was a lit­tle sur­prised Bar­ton didn’t men­tion the Aus­tralian film­mak­ers who have at­tempted to shed a sym­pa­thetic light on the prob­lems of the dis­abled: Rolf de Heer with his ten­der Dance Me to My Song (1998), which starred and was co­scripted by cere­bral palsy suf­ferer Heather Rose, who gave a shat­ter­ing por­trayal of her daily life; and po­lio sur­vivor Ben Lewin’s equally pow­er­ful The Ses­sions (2012) in which a po­lio vic­tim, played by John Hawkes, seeks sex­ual grat­i­fi­ca­tion from a sex ther­a­pist, bravely por­trayed by He­len Hunt. Both these films were de­signed to alert a wider au­di­ence to the real day-to-day prob­lems faced by the se­verely dis­abled, and it would have been in­ter­est­ing to have been pro­vided with Bar­ton’s take on them.


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