“THE BEGUILED” (2017) Review

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“THE BEGUILED” (2017) Review

I have never been a diehard fan of Southern Gothic fiction. Not really. But there have been some fictional works in that genre that have appealed to me. In fact, if you ask me, I could come up with a pretty good list of Southern Gothic movie and television productions that I have always enjoyed. 

Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel, “The Beguiled” aka “A Painted Devil” first came to my attention when I saw the 1971 movie adaptation of the novel years ago. I became an instant fan of the film and read Cullinan’s novel. Then I became a fan of the novel. So when I heard that director Sofia Coppola planned to direct her own film adaptation, I looked forward to it. One, I liked the story. Two, I am a sucker for a good Civil War film, being an amateur historian and movie nut. And I had also learned Coppola had won the Palme d’Or Best Director award (the second woman to do so) at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for this film.

Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation had made a few changes to Cullinan’s novel. One, he and the movie’s screenwriters made the story’s leading man an American of Irish descent, instead of the Irish immigrant portrayed in the novel. The story was set in 1863 Mississippi, during the Vicksburg Campaign. And two of the novels’ characters – the 17 year-old biracial Edwina Morrow and the nearly middle-aged Miss Harriet Farnsworth – were merged into a young white schoolteacher named Edwina Dabney. Sofia Coppola’s movie maintained the novel’s portrayal of leading man as an Irish immigrant and Cullinan’s setting – 1864 Virginia, during the Civil War’s Overland Campaign. However, Coppola’s movie followed Siegel’s example by merging the Edwina Morrow and Harriet Farnsworth characters into a schoolteacher.

“THE BEGUILED” began in the woods, near the Farnsworth Seminary, an all girls’ school in 1864 Virginia. When one of its students, a thirteen year-old girl named Amy is searching the woods for mushrooms to pick, she comes across a wounded Union Army soldier named Corporal John McBurney. He had been wounded in the leg before deserting the battlefield. Amy brings McBurney to the school where he falls unconscious. The school’s headmistress, Miss Martha Farnsworth, decides to heal the corporal’s wounded leg before turning him over to the Confederate Army as a prisoner. But Miss Farnsworth, Amy and the other females inside the school become “charmed” by the Irish-born soldier, as he slowly heals from his wounds. Amy, another student named Alicia and the school’s remaining teacher, Edwina Morrow, become especially captivated by McBurney’s charm. However, McBurney’s presence in the school generate a good deal of jealousy between the young students and the two women before an unexpected incident spirals the entire situation out of control.

Like the 1966 novel and its 1971 adaptation, “THE BEGUILED” took me by surprise in many ways. One of the film’s most noteworthy aspects was Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography. I have never seen any of his previous film work. But I must admit that his photography did an excellent job in creating this film’s Old South atmosphere:

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Le Sourd’s cinematography definitely helped setting up the film’s atmosphere, especially due to the lack of any solid score. I also have to give points to Stacey Battat for creating costumes designs indicative to the Civil War period – especially for women and girls. Mind you, I thought some of the costumes may have been slightly anachronistic.

I also cannot deny that “THE BEGUILED” featured some strong performances from the cast. Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst were top-notched, as usual. Kidman did a fine job portraying the no-nonsense and pragmatic headmistress, Martha Farnsworth, who seemed to have little problems with controlling those around her . . . including her only schoolteacher. Despite Martha Farnsworth being her second role as a Southerner (I think), I was surprised that Kidman’s Southern accent wavered a bit. Although Farrell is at least twenty years older than the literary John McBurney, he was free to portray the character as was described in Cullinan’s novel – an Irish immigrant recently recruited into the Union Army upon his arrival in the United States. However, his McBurney’s charm seemed to have more of an edge of desperation, due to his circumstances. And Kirsten Dunst gave a very competent performance as the emotionally repressed Edwina Morrow, a young schoolteacher who finds herself drawn to the handsome McBurney, despite her efforts to ignore him. Dunst also did a competent job in not only conveying Edwina’s growing attraction to McBurney, but also her wariness of being under Miss Farnsworth’s control.

The movie could also boast some surprisingly excellent performances from the younger cast members, who portrayed the school’s students. Elle Fanning gave a decent performance as the adolescent Alicia, whose attraction to McBurney partly stems from her growing awareness of her sexuality. However, there were moments when it seemed she was losing some control of the character. Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, and Emma Howard also gave very competent performances. But I was especially impressed by Addison Riecke’s portrayal of young Marie, an impish student who borrowed Edwina’s earrings for the dinner party with McBurney and managed to manipulatively avoid returning them to the schoolteacher. Excellent performance by the young actress.

Although “THE BEGUILED” possessed some admirable traits, overall I was not that impressed by the film. Frankly, I am at a loss over how Coppola managed to win such a prestigious award at the Cannes Film Festival. Perhaps the voters had no idea that the narrative for this film is basically a Southern Gothic tale? Who knows? Coppola had erased so much from Cullinan’s story.

One aspect of “THE BEGUILED” that came to my attention was the lack of background for most of the characters at the Farnsworth Seminary. Now, unless my memory is failing me, the movie only revealed the fact that Edwina Morrow had a father living in Richmond. I believe the movie also touched upon the wartime fate of Amelia’s brothers. I believe. To be honest, I am not that certain. Coppola deleted Martha Farnsworth’s family history – especially her incestuous relationship with her brother. After all, one of the reasons Miss Farnsworth eventually opened up to McBurney was his resemblance to this “much loved” brother. Although the film revealed the existence of Edwina’s father, the screenplay never touched upon his role as a war profiteer or his lack of concern toward his daughter. The movie revealed nothing about Alicia’s family background – especially her prostitute mother who had abandoned her at the seminary. The movie revealed nothing about the remaining students’ backgrounds. McBurney’s discoveries and knowledge of their personal histories played a role in the events that occurred in the movie’s third act. Without the revelations of the female characters’ backgrounds, Coppola resorted to whitewashing the reasons behind their actions in the film’s third act.

Coppola claimed that she wanted “THE BEGUILED” to give a “voice” to the story’s female characters. Why did she make that claim? Each chapter in Cullinan’s 1966 novel was written from the viewpoints of a major female character and NOT . . . from Corporal McBurney’s point of view. Although the 1971 film featured scenes from McBurney’s point of view, it also did the same for the female characters. Also, McBurney was the only major character who lacked an inner monologue. Since the novel and the 1971 film featured the females’ points of view, what on earth was Coppola’s goal? To portray her female characters as ideal as possible? I noticed that neither anger or jealousy played a role in the violence that marked the film’s third act.

Alicia slept with McBurney because she was an adolescent “exploring her growing sexuality”. Not once did Coppola’s screenplay hint how her past experiences with her prostitute mother may have influenced her behavior with the opposite sex. By removing Martha Farnsworth’s incestuous history with her late brother – the one whom McBurney resembled, Coppola removed any possibility of Miss Farnsworth being driven by anger and jealousy over his tryst with Alicia to amputate his leg. By having McBurney behave like a borderline stalker in one scene following his amputation, Coppola justified the females’ decision to kill him with poisonous mushrooms. It seemed as if Coppola’s idea of feminist sensibilities is to portray her female characters with as little flaws as possible. And this led to her portraying the female characters’ decisions in the film’s last hour to be marred by a lack of moral ambiguity of any kind. This decision on Coppola’s part strikes me as cowardly.

If Coppola’s decision to portray her females characters with as little ambiguity as possible was bad enough, she also eliminated the school’s remaining slave, an African-American woman named Matilda (“Mattie”). Coppola gave a reason for this decision in the following statement:

“I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.”

What depiction was she referring to? Cullinan’s portrayal of Mattie in the 1966 novel? The only character who saw through McBurney’s charming bullshit and wanted nothing to do with him? Or Hallie (who was renamed) from the 1971 film, who also saw through his charm, despite their occasional bouts of flirting. I had no problems with either Cullinan or Siegel’s depictions of the character. Naturally, some movie reviewers supported Coppola’s decision, including one reviewer from the ALLIANCE OF WOMEN FILM JOURNALIST, who stated:

“The film has been criticized for its lack of comment on the Civil War or slavery. The war is a backdrop, the circumstance that isolated than part of the story. Unlike the 1966 novel and the 1971 movie, there are no African American characters in this film, explained by a single line says they left. Because it is set in the Civil War, it is a valid point but addressing the issue would have taken the focus off the women’s issues that are Coppola’s main point.”

Apparently, Coppola and her supporters do not regard women of color as a part of “women’s issues”. Or perhaps they feel that non-white women are not . . . women. White feminism at its height. If Coppola felt uncomfortable at the idea in exploring a non-white character, why on earth did she adapt Cullinan’s novel in the first place?

The lack of Mattie/Hallie in Coppola’s adaptation raised other problems. One, the slave woman’s presence allowed both Cullinan and Siegel to portray the school’s other occupants with a level of ambiguity that Coppola lacked the guts to face. I wonder if Mattie’s presence would have robbed Coppola the opportunity to explore her fantasies regarding Southern white women. Mattie was one of two characters who knew why Martha Farnsworth was willing to amputate McBurney’s leg in the novel. In Don Siegel’s movie, she was the only one. This knowledge led to an interesting scene between the two women in both the novel and the 1971 film. In both the novel and the Siegel film, Mattie/Hallie was the person who actually prepared the poisoned mushrooms for McBurney . . . and she did it out of her own anger toward the Union soldier. Without the slave woman, who prepared the mushrooms in this film? Edwina Morrow, who had been serving as the establishment’s cook, following the slaves’ departure? At the time, she was busy enjoying lustful relations with McBurney. Miss Farnsworth? Did she know how to cook? The movie never established this.

“BEGUILED” did feature scenes of the students and the two teachers engaged in household and garden duties. First of all, none of them looked as if they knew what they were doing. Second of all, since they were such abysmal housekeepers, how did they managed to keep their clothing looking so pristine? Without the benefit of servants?

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Judging from the costumes worn in the above image, Dunst and her younger co-stars do not look as if they are dressed for household duties. Instead, they seemed to be dressed for Sunday church services in the mid 19th century, an afternoon tea party or a picnic. At least other Civil War movie and television productions have their Southern female characters dressed more realistically . . . even the 1939 movie, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. I find it difficult to believe that Miss Farnsworth and her fellow inhabitants were capable of keeping their daily clothes looking so pristine – with or without a servant. All of the look like figures in some Southern belle fantasy.

For me, there were other problems in Coppola’s adaptation. I had a problem with her characterization of McBurney. Both the novel and the 1971 presented the character as something of a snake-tongued charmer. Farrell’s interpretation seemed to present McBurney more as an obsequious man who resorts to slavish politeness, instead of charm, to win over the school’s inhabitants. Farrell had the skill to convey McBurney’s charm, but it seemed as if Coppola had somehow held him back. Worse, the movie barely touched upon the Civil War, despite the presence of a Union soldier. I also did not understand why Coppola maintained the character of Emily Stevenson, and yet transferred Emily’s “pro-Confederate” personality to a character created for the film. Why did she do that? Why did she film this movie in Louisiana? Coppola retained the setting from the novel – Virginia 1864. Yet, she shot the film in the Deep South – a region that looked nothing like Virginia. Coppola could have changed the setting to the Deep South or shoot the film in the Upper South. She did neither. I also need to rephrase my comments regarding Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography. Although I admired his exterior shots in the film, I cannot say the same about his interior shots. Quite frankly, I could barely see a damn thing, even when a scene was set during the daytime.

I am still at a loss on how Sofia Coppola thought she could improve both Thomas Cullinan’s novel and Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation. Granted, the cast – including Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst – gave competent performances. But Coppola stripped away so much from this story. She stripped away a lot of the characters’ ambiguity. She stripped away an important character who had the misfortune – at least in the director’s eyes – to be an African-American. Which meant that she stripped away the topic of slavery and to a certain extent, even the war itself. In the end, “THE BEGUILED” seemed like a Southern Gothic tale with barely any life. It struck me as a shell of Cullinan’s novel and Siegel’s own adaptation. After watching this film, I found myself asking why Coppola felt she could adapt the 1966 novel in the first place, considering that she seemed incapable of exploring it with any semblance of real honesty.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1860s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1860s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1860s

1. “Lincoln” (2012) – Steven Spielberg directed this highly acclaimed film about President Abraham Lincoln’s last four months in office and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery. Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, Oscar nominee Sally Field and Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones starred.

2. “Shenandoah”(1965) – James Stewart starred in this bittersweet tale about how a Virginia farmer’s efforts to keep his family out of the Civil War failed when his youngest son is mistaken as a Confederate soldier by Union troops and taken prisoner. Andrew V. McLaglen directed.

3. “Angels & Insects” (1995) – Philip Haas directed this adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella, “Morpho Eugenia” about a Victorian naturalist who marries into the English landed gentry. Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit starred.

4. “Class of ’61” (1993) – Dan Futterman and Clive Owen co-starred in this television movie about recent West Point graduates and their experiences during the first months of the Civil War. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie was directed by Gregory Hoblit.

5. “The Tall Target” (1951) – Anthony Mann directed this suspenseful tale about a New York City Police sergeant who stumbles across a plot to kill President-elect Lincoln and travels aboard the train carrying the latter to stop the assassination attempt. Dick Powell starred.

6. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (1967) – John Schlesinger directed this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman torn between three men. The movie starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.

7. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) – Sergio Leone directed this epic Spaghetti Western about three gunslingers in search of a cache of Confederate gold in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach starred.

8. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Anthony Minghella directed this poignant adaptation of Charles Fraizer’s 1997 novel about a Confederate Army deserter, who embarks upon a long journey to return home to his sweetheart, who is struggling to maintain her farm, following the death of her father. The movie starred Oscar nominees Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, along with Oscar winner Renee Zellweger.

9. “Little Women” (1994) – Gillian Armstrong directed this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel about four sisters from an impoverished, yet genteel New England family. The movie starred Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Christian Bale and Susan Sarandon.

10. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Clint Eastwood starred in this atmospheric adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel about a wounded Union soldier who finds refuge at an all-girl boarding school in 1863 Mississippi. Directed by Don Siegel, the movie co-starred Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.

Ten Favorite CIVIL WAR Movies and Miniseries

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the American Civil War:

TEN FAVORITE CIVIL WAR MOVIES AND MINISERIES

1. “North and South: Book II” (1986) – An almost excellent miniseries adaptation of John Jakes’ 1984 novel, “Love and War”, despite having a few problems with some of the plotlines and characters. If you like over-the-top period pieces, this is your story. The miniseries starred Patrick Swayze, James Read and Lesley Anne-Down.

2. “Gettysburg” (1993) – Movie adaptation of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the three-day battle at Gettysburg during the war. First class. Starring Tom Berrenger, Jeff Daniels and Martin Sheen.

3. “Glory” (1989) – Movie about the famous all black 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment during the war. Superb and highly recommended. The movie starred Matthew Broderick, Oscar winner Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher and Cary Elwes.

4. “Lincoln” (1988) – Sam Waterson and Mary Tyler Moore starred in this excellent, two-part television adaptation of Gore Vidal’s 1984 novel about the 16th president.

5. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Love story about a Confederate deserter trying to return home to North Carolina and the love of his life. Beautiful love story. Starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Oscar winner Renee Zellewiger.

6. “The Blue and the Gray” (1982) – A three-part miniseries about two related families – one from Pennsylvania and one from Virginia during the Civil War. Pretty good. The miniseries starred John Hammond and Stacy Keach.

7. “Class of ’61” (1993) – TV movie about two West Point graduates during the first months of the Civil War and the people in their lives. The movie starred Dan Futterman, Clive Owen, Andre Braugher, Laura Linney and Josh Lucas.

8. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Intriguing Civil War melodrama about a wounded Union soldier convalescing at girls’ school in Mississippi. The movie starred Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.

9. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” – Three men search for missing Confederate gold in this Spaghetti Western set in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Great movie that starred Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef.

10. “Gone With the Wind” (1939) – The best thing about this Oscar winner is its first half, which featured the trials and tribulations of Georgia belle, Scarlett O’Hara, during the war. The movie starred Oscar winners Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel, along with Clark Gable, Olivia DeHavilland and Leslie Howard.

What are your favorite Civil War movies?

“AUSTRALIA” (2008) Review

“AUSTRALIA” (2008) Review

I might as well say it. I have never been a fan of director Baz Luhrmann’s films. ”STRICTLY BALLROOM” (1992) had failed to generate my interest. I could say the same about the 1996 version of ”ROMEO AND JULIET” As for ”MOULIN ROUGE” (2001), I loathe the highly acclaimed film. Considering my views on Luhrmann’s past films, I had no desire to see his latest endeavor – namely ”AUSTRALIA”, which stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. 

”AUSTRALIA” struck me as a character study of its three main characters – Lady Sarah Ashley, a British aristocrat who inherits her late husband’s cattle station (Kidman); her Drover (Jackman); and Nullah (Brandon Walters), the mixed blood child of Lady Ashley’s Aborigine maid and a white man. Written by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Richard Flanagan and Ronald Harwood, this three-way character study focuses upon Lady Ashley’s attempts to maintain her fortune and cattle station, and keep her newly formed family together that includes Nullah and the Drover. Threatening Lady Ashley’s plans are a greedy cattle baron named King Carney (Bryan Brown), Australia’s ”Stolen Generation” policy regarding mixed blood children, World War II, the Drover’s emotional cowardice, the villainous machinations of a station manager named Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) and her own possessive nature. All of this is set against the epic backdrop of Australia’s Northern Territory between 1939 and 1942. The story reaches its apex in the Japanese bombing of Darwin on February 19, 1942.

If I must be frank, ”AUSTRALIA” is not the type of film I could see earning nominations for any major movie awards. Except for one possible category. It is not perfect film. Let me rephrase that. ”AUSTRALIA” struck me as the type of popcorn epic that would be more appreciated during the summer season. Personally, I would compare it to Michael Bay’s 2001 film, ”PEARL HARBOR”. Only the latter struck me as slightly superior. Thanks to Luhrmann’s direction and the screenplay he co-wrote with Beattie, Flanagan and Harwood, ”AUSTRALIA” had the bad luck to be marred by overblown melodrama that had seen its heyday in television soap operas like ”DYNASTY”. This seemed very apparent in the film’s last act that followed the Darwin bombing. Obstacle after contrived obstacle popped up endlessly to prevent Sarah Ashley, the Drover and Nullah from enjoying a tearful reunion.

Another aspect of the film that annoyed me was its first twenty minutes that introduced the main characters. Quite frankly, those early scenes baffled me. What exactly was Luhrmann trying to achieve? I found myself watching a badly acted spoof on costume epics or Australian culture with exaggerated performances by Kidman, Jackman and Jack Thompson, who portrayed Lady Ashley’s alcoholic accountant, Kipling Flynn. Speaking of Thompson, the poor man seemed truly wasted in this film. He only hung around long enough to give an over-the-top portrayal of a drunken man who ends up being killed by stampeding cattle. And all of this happened before the first hour.

Judging from the above, one would assume that I disliked ”AUSTRALIA”. Heartily. Guess what? I don’t. In fact, I found myself becoming a fan of the movie by the time the end credits rolled. How was that possible? Well, once Luhrmann’s tale rolled past that . . . bizarre first twenty minutes, it actually improved. To my utter surprise, I found myself getting caught up in Lady Ashley’s horror at the discovery of her husband’s murder, her growing affection for Nullah and the other hands on Faraway Downs, her new cattle station and her growing attraction toward the Drover. The movie’s first main action piece centered around Lady Ashley’s attempt to save her station with a cattle drive to Darwin. Not only does she develop a close relationship with Nullah, but falls in love with the Drover. And she also earns a strong enemy . . . not King Carney, the cattle baron who is determined to monopolize the cattle industry in the Northern Territory, but her husband’s former station manager who not only works for Carney, but longs to take possession of Faraway Downs for himself.

One of the amazing aspects about ”AUSTRALIA” is that the movie managed to provide an entertaining romance between two interesting, yet flawed people. Despite their hokey acting in the film’s opening sequences, Kidman and Jackman did a solid job in creating chemistry between Lady Ashley and the Drover – two people who seemingly had no business in becoming a couple. Kidman eventually portrayed Lady Ashley as a warm and passionate woman who was afraid to let go of those she loved. This Lady Ashley was a far cry from the ridiculously shrill woman that first arrived in Australia. And Jackman transformed the Drover from the blustery and macho Australian male archetype into a caring man who was also afraid to become emotional close to anyone. David Ngoombujarra gave solid support as the Drover’s close friend and colleague, Magarri. Well known actor-dancer David Gulpilil was very imposing and unforgettable as King George, a magic tribal leader suspected of killing Lady Ashley’s husband. And veteran actor Bryan Brown was very entertaining as the charismatic cattle baron, King Carney. Surprisingly, Brown’s character did not end up as the movie’s main antagonist. That task fell upon David Wenham, who portrayed Neil Fletcher, Lady Ashley’s station manager and later, business adversary. Recalling Richard Roxburgh’s over-the-top performance as the Duke of Monroth in ”MOULIN ROUGE!”, I had feared that Wenham would utilize the same approach. Thankfully, Wenham’s villainy turned out to be more nuanced and low key. He gave a perfect portrayal of an insecure man who not only harbored a deep resentment toward the more privileged types like Lady Ashley and King Carney, but was too racist to acknowledge his own half-white/half-Aborigine son, Nullah, who also happened to be tribal leader King George’s grandson. But the real star of ”AUSTRALIA” turned out to be the young Aborigine actor, Brandon Walters, who portrayed Nullah. All I can say is – where did Baz Luhrmann find this kid? He was phenomenal! This is the second movie in which Nicole Kidman found herself co-starring with an inexperienced, yet very talented child actor (the first being Dakota Blue Richards of ”THE GOLDEN COMPASS”). Walters, who turned out to be a very charismatic and talented young actor, literally stole the picture from his co-stars. And I suspect that must have been unusual thing to do in a movie that was nearly three hours long. Whether Walters prove to become a future star – only time will tell.

But ”AUSTRALIA” is not just about the characters. Luhrmann did a pretty good job of re-creating Northern Australia during the early years of World War II. And he received able support from people like Production Designer/Costume Designer Catherine Martin (Academy Award winner), Art Directors Ian Gracie and Karen Murphy, Cinematographer Mandy Walker, Special Effects Supervisors Aaron and Brian Cox, and Visual Effects Manager Katrin Arndt. I was especially impressed by Walker’s photography of Sydney, Bowen and Northern Australia locations such as Darwin and Kununurra. She did a beautiful job of capturing the rugged and dangerous cattle drive that dominated the movie’s first half. I also have to commend both her photography and Arndt’s special effects team for the sequence that featured the Japanese bombing of Darwin. My only quibble about the bombing sequence was that it did not last very long. Granted, ”AUSTRALIA” is not”PEARL HARBOR” and its plot did not revolved around the Darwin attack as the latter film revolved around the December 7, 1941 attack in Hawaii. But, I must admit that I had been looking forward to a sequence with a little more depth than was shown.

The Japanese attack upon Darwin was not the only historical topic that dominated ”AUSTRALIA”. The movie also focused upon Australia’s policy toward those children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families by the Australian and State government agencies and church missions between 1869 and 1969. One of the victims of this policy turned out to be Nullah, who is Aboriginal on his mother. The movie featured three chilling scenes that conveyed how this particular policy affected Nullah’s life. The most chilling centered around Nullah and his mother’s attempt to hide from the local police inside Faraway Down’s water tower – an act that leads to his mother’s death by drowning.

I am not surprised that ”AUSTRALIA” was never considered Best Picture material.  It certainly was not even by me. Luhrmann had indulged in a little too much melodrama – especially in the film’s last half hour – to suit me. And I found the movie’s first half hour very confusing. I did not know whether Luhrmann had expected the audience to take it seriously or realize that he was trying to spoof epic movies or Australia in general. Whatever he was trying to achieve, I feel that he had made a piss poor effort. But as I had pointed out earlier, once Kidman’s character arrived at her late husband’s cattle station, the movie found its groove and Luhrmann proceeded to unveil an engrossing, yet entertaining epic tale.

“HIS DARK MATERIALS: THE GOLDEN COMPASS” (2007) Review

“HIS DARK MATERIALS: THE GOLDEN COMPASS” (2007) Review”

I might as well make one thing clear . . . when I first saw “THE GOLDEN COMPASS”, I had never read Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, “His Dark Materials”.  But this did not deter my interest in seeing the movie based upon the first novel, “THE GOLDEN COMPASS”. And quite frankly, I am glad that I had seen it. 

Directed by Chris Weitz, “THE GOLDEN COMPASS” opened with the beginning of the “HIS DARK MATERIALS” saga. In it, a young girl named Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), lives at Jordan College (of Oxford University) in an alternate dimension of Great Britain. She saves er uncle, world explorer/scholar Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) from being poisoned by the Magisterium (the dimension’s religious ruling body) after he has revealed his discovery of elementary particles called Dust – something that the ruling body consider a threat to their authority. After her uncle departs upon an expedition to the North to find more Dust, Lyra befriends another scholar and explorer named Mrs. Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) during a dinner held at Jordan College. While visiting Mrs. Coulter in London, Lyra learns that her hostess is a member of the Magisterium and has participated in the kidnapping of young children, including two of her friends – a kitchen servant named Roger, and a Gyptian boy named Billy Costa. She also discovers that Mrs. Coulter wants her hands on the last alethiometer, a device that resembles a golden compass. This device, which was given to Lyra by Jordan College’s Master, is able to reveal the answer to any question asked by the user.

After escaping Mrs. Coulter’s London flat, Lyra is rescued by the Gyptians, who plans to rescue Billy and the other children. They take Lyra to the Norweigian town of Trollsund, where she meets an aeronaut named Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot). She also meets Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) who is a queen of the witches, and an armoured bear named Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellan). With her new friends, Lyra embarks upon an adventure that leads her to a conflict between her friend Iorek and the false king of the amored bears, Ragnar Sturlusson (voice of Ian McShane); and to Bolvangar, an experimental station in the North where the Magisterium are severing the Gyptian children from their daemons. Before the movie ends Lyra learns that Lord Asriel has been captured by Magisterium spies and that Mrs. Coulter plans to assassinate him. She, Roger, Scoresby and Serafina set out to rescue the endangered explorer by the end of the movie.

Like any other movie, good or bad, “THE GOLDEN COMPASS” had its flaws. There were three of them that I found noticeable. One, the movie’s plot seemed rather vague on Lord Asriel’s fate after he was captured by the Magisterium’s spies in the North. Serafina gave a brief explanation to Scoresby near the end, as they set out to find Asriel. But still . . . I found it vague. Two, the editing by Anne V. Coates seemed a bit choppy in a few spots. And most importantly, the movie’s pacing . . . at least in the first third, seemed very rushed. Some people have complained that too many aspects of the story had been stuffed in the script. I personally feel that Weitz had simply rushed the story. By the time Lyra and the Gyptians reached Trollsund, the director seemed to have finally found a natural pace.

However, I must admit that “THE GOLDEN COMPASS” had turned out to be a lot better than I had expected. Honestly, it is quite good. The story was intriguing. Chris Weitz did a decent job in adapting Pullman’s novel for film, even if he did rush the first third of the story. I simply adored Henry Braham’s photography and Ruth Myer’s costume designs – especially Nicole Kidman’s elegant, 1930s style costumes. But I must commend Richard L. Johnson. Chris Lowe and Andy Nicholson for their sumptious art direction (for which they earned an Oscar nomination) – especially their view of London in Pullman’s world.  Dennis Gassner deserved an Oscar nomination for his production design, as far as I am concerned.  However, the Visual Effects team won a well-deserved Oscar for their re-creation of the magic featured in the world in Pullman’s saga.

The actors were first rate. What does one expect from a cast with the likes of Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Sam Elliot, Jim Carter, Tom Courtenay? I especially have to give kudos to Craig who seemed like the embodiment of the ruthless, yet enthusiastic scholar Lord Asriel. And Nicole Kidman brought great style, charm and ruthlessness to the role of the villainous Mrs. Coulter. But she also gave the character a much needed pathos, when the lady revealed to our young heroine that she was the latter’s mother. It was quite thrilling to see Eva Green as a woman of action in her portrayal of the queen witch, Serafina Pekkala. Ian McKellan and Ian McShane were excellent as the feuding armored bears. And Jim Carter (who is married to HARRY POTTER actress Imelda Staunton) was most intimidating as the Gyptians’ king, John Faa. Seeing Sam Elliot’s portrayal as the charming aeronaut, Lee Scoresby, reminded me why I have remained a fan of his for so long. His scenes with young Dakota Blue Richards really crackled. He seemed like the embodiment of a fine wine that has aged very well.

“THE GOLDEN COMPASS”‘s center . . . the character that held the movie together was none other than first-time British actress, Dakota Blue Richards. This young lady was a find. She was absolutely perfect as the charming, yet bold and cunning Lyra. Some Washington D.C. critic had compared her unfavorably to another actress named Dakota – namely Dakota Fanning. Granted, the latter is an excellent actress, but so is Miss Richards. She managed to convey all of Lyra’s complex traits without turning the character into an adult in a child’s body. She was simply superb.

I am sure there are fans of Pullman’s novels who are disappointed that the movie did not turn out to be an exact adaptation of the literary version. All I can say is I am sorry, but I have never heard of any movie being an exact adaptation of its literary source. And if you are hoping to find one in the future, you will be disappointed. Yes, “THE GOLDEN COMPASS” has its flaws. What movie does not? But it certainly had enough virtues, including a superb leading actress, that made it enjoyable . . . at least for me.