The Beguiled–Bewitched and Possessed

 

The Beguiled

In Sophia Coppola’s reinterpretation of the 1971 Clint Eastwood film by the same name, The Beguiled opens with an eleven-year-old girl gathering mushrooms in her straw basket deep in a quiet wood in Virginia. Conjuring an image of Little Red Riding Hood soon coming upon a big bad wolf, we see her discover the wounded John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Union soldier in the midst of the Civil War. The child decides to take him back to her girls’ boarding school. Headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is reluctant but feels a moral obligation to tend to him. Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), a teacher locks McBurney in the music room, terrified of what could be a menace to their highly secluded and precarious lifestyle. In a series of lovingly erotic shots of headmistress Martha’s bathing Farrell’s chest, forearms, calves, and neck as she ministers to his injuries, the viewer sees a foreshadowing of what is to come.

Meanwhile, the students—especially the sexually blossoming teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning), huddle by the door, to get at least a brief glimpse of probably the only man to ever visit the boarding school. Aware of McBurney’s sexual drive as well as their own (albeit sometimes subconsciously), each girl except the youngest who is eleven, preens in front of him: with pearl earrings, a formal dress, or bearing small gifts. Miss Martha looks at all of this in horror, but raging hormones are everywhere.

McBurney is a shape-shifter, and his foil are the two adult women: Martha and Edwina. At times respectful or seductive, compassionate or manipulative, sometimes earnest, McBurney manages to be both for each resident.

The Beguiled is just that: hypnotic, mesmerizing, and unsettling. With each scene– fleeting, things unsaid, –there are repressed emotions and dreams, a stultifying code of norms for girls and women. The drama is internal–expressed in the cinematography by the placement of scenes within the boundaries of the boarding school. Perhaps symbolic of the interior life of the female realm where women, confined by their circumstances, can only be independent when the male lies powerless, the viewer sees what happens when women, unaccustomed to this power, react. The mere presence of a man unexpectedly and violently alters their group dynamic.

The pacing for this historical drama is at times slow. However, The Beguiled is worth watching, especially for the originality of Sophia Coppola’s world view. Both Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst infuse humor and intensity into their roles, giving performances that are perfectly interwoven. This is perhaps Colin Farrell’s best performance yet. And Elle Fanning is a wonder, embodying teenage sexuality, giving heat through her languid gestures, evoking a boredom on the verge of explosion.

The Beguiled rages with what lies underneath the surface. This is Sophia Coppola at her very best.

 

Note:  Currently available on Netflix (DVD)

 

“Photograph 51”—Rosalind Franklin: Double Helix and Double Crossed

 

Nicole Kidman
Nicole Kidman

The critically acclaimed play, “Photograph 51”, currently in London, and written by Anna Ziegler, exposes the obscurity of a brilliant crystallographer, Rosalind Franklin, who identified the chemical structure needed for understanding the molecular composition of DNA as well as raising the question: Are women still sidelined in the scientific world?

Kidman Photo51Most people familiar with the double helix have probably associated it with Nobel Prize winners Francis Crick and James Watson. The critical scientific role Rosalind Franklin played at King’s College London is still, to a great extent, sadly overlooked.

Photograph 51 refers to the pioneering Xray-diffraction image of the DNA double helix, the elegant result of Franklin’s pioneering crystallography technique. Together with a seminal research paper, Photograph 51 was given by one of her graduate students to Maurice Wilkins, her laboratory supervisor, without her knowledge. Passed on to Watson and Crick who were racing for the Nobel Prize before Johannes Salk (also researching DNA), Franklin’s Photograph 51 was not acknowledged until decades later by other scientists. (She had died four years earlier from ovarian cancer at the age of 37.) None of the Nobel Prize winners paid tribute to Rosalind Franklin’s pioneering work. (Watson was later to portray Franklin negatively in his book on the history of his research, the best-selling The Double Helix, which ironically started a deeper investigation into her contributions.)

Nicole Kidman’s powerful and commanding performance as Rosalind Franklin, avoids stereotypes of a female intellectual without social skills. Rosalind Franklin had a reserved personality, often bristly and uncompromising, which compounded her distance from her colleagues’ sexism, petty academic jealousies, and anti-Semitism. Kidman’s Franklin reveals subtle layers of vulnerability underneath the hostility to colleagues who had promised her a laboratory of her own but relegated her to assisting Wilkins. Later, Wilkins would be the conduit who robbed Franklin of her place in the history of science. Kidman, as Franklin, reveals through her stillness and her posture, her backstory with her parents. She retreats into her own world, a quiet determination to prove her hypothesis about DNA, and the tentativeness of women not to make mistakes or take risks in a male-dominant profession or be sanctioned for life.

Kidman’s performance captures not only the complexities of Franklin’s personality but also luminous intensity as the scientist absorbed by the findings of photograph 51. It is a fine performance, and a subtle one, in which Kidman reminds us that the scientific life can be informed by private passion but at great personal sacrifice. Her gaze both chills and fascinates, radiating and demanding, in a singularly self-possessed presence. At curtain call, I noticed a flick of tears from Kidman’s cheek after a particularly moving finale.

Photograph 51’s stage design sets the tone: a bombed-out Gothic university laboratory evokes a tomb, the death of Franklin’s prospects for scientific recognition. My only complaint is that, given the title and the complex scientific theory, there was not even one projection of photograph 51 on a screen so the audience could see the visual image of Franklin’s ideas.

Note: Kidman is in discussion for a possible Broadway production.

 

 

 

“Rabbit Hole”–A Parallel Universe

Nominated for five Tony Awards including Best Play and a 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner, “Rabbit Hole” was released as a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart about six months ago (December 2010). This movie takes familiar territory and creates a classic.

Astutely named, “rabbit hole” refers to a bizarre or difficult state or situation. What gut-wrenching, reality-changing universe can be more brutal and painful than the death of a loved one? A metaphor for adventure into the unknown, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, there is no clear set of rules for a world turned upside down by grief . In a labyrinth of guilt, self-recrimination, tightly controlled rage and estrangement from oneself, there seems to be no escape.

The storyline is every parent’s nightmare–the death of a child. Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) struggle furiously with the deepest of wounds after the death of their 4-year-old son, Danny. The once happily married couple finds themselves displaced. Their marriage on the verge of a nervous breakdown, in a house still infused with death. Where Becca finds pain in the familiar, Howie finds comfort. Their souls are dissolving and dangerously off track.

Becca’s loving but unintentionally inept mother (Dianne Wiest) has also experienced the death of a son and unsuccessfully offers comfort and advice but Becca reflexively refuses. Weekly support group therapy only increases Becca’s inability to heal. Howie finds solace in Gaby, a fellow therapy attendee (played with compassion by Sandra Oh) while Becca stalks a teenager who has written and illustrated a comic book, entitled “Rabbit Hole”, about a parallel universe where Becca believes “somewhere out there I’m having a good time.”

This cinematic character study redirects our sympathies at every turn. Never mordant, though painful, this taxonomy of grief taps a reservoir of feelings common to anyone who has experienced the reality-shifting vacuum left by a death in the family. Anyone who has ever gone through the possessions of a deceased family member or close friend understands instantly the crispness in tone of voice, the touch of the clothing, and the memory of smell portrayed in several of this film’s most memorable scenes. Without flinching, the cast makes it clear that the wound beneath the surface never really stops hurting, but heals by degrees.