Films: Fairy tale, beguiling remake and road trip

Written By: Patrick Mulcahy
Published: July 17, 2017 Last modified: July 17, 2017

Baby Driver
Director: Edgar Wright

The Beguiled
Director: Sofia Coppola

Edith Walks
Director: Andrew Kötting

Somerset-born director Edgar Wright is the most admired mainstream British auteur never to have made a film that has grossed more than $100 million at the box office. Baby Driver, which has had the biggest opening of his career, $29.2 million in the first five days of its North American release, looks set to change all that.

It is a crime movie with a difference. Its young getaway driver hero, Baby (Ansel Elgort, pictured) has tinnitus but adapts to the “hum in a drum” by playing pieces of music as he speeds away from crime scenes. Baby unnerves the career criminals that he works with partly through his pasty youthful impassive face, partly through his sunglasses and partly that he ­appears preoccupied. He is preoccupied – he makes little rap tapes based on lines from his criminal accomplices. He is also working through an obligation to his boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), that he hopes will put a life of crime behind him. Though he falls for a waitress, Debora (Lily James), he has no such luck.

Wright’s British films – Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End – riff on American genres, the zombie film, the buddy cop thriller and the end of the world disaster movie, putting slightly inadequate but genre aware British men-children (usually played by Simon Pegg) in the middle of the action. His two American films – Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and now Baby Driver – embrace the giddy pleasures of genre movies with a cartoon, rather than realistic edge. When Baby and Debora spend time in a Laundromat, each drier in two rows one on top of the other is working with different (single colour) sheets tumbling round and round. Baby only really has conversations with his adoptive father (CJ Jones) and with Debora. Otherwise he repeats what others have said, either quoting from movies or from instructions – word-for-word – that Doc gives.

Baby himself has morals. He is appalled each time the criminals that he works with kill innocents; we see the robberies through his eyes from a distance. He never quite drowns out the horror of his world – flashbacks take him back to the car crash that resulted in the death of his parents and his recurring tinnitus. At the same time, he experiences heightened pleasure as he fetches coffee, music playing in his ears.

Wright surrounds Elgort with charismatic bad boy and girl actors, notably Jon Bernthal, Eiza González and Jon Hamm. The film is stolen by a hyperactive turn from Jamie Foxx as Bats, who insists on being the psychopath in the group (“Position taken”). When Bats threatens Debora, Baby steps out of his carefully controlled persona and crosses a line.

The car chases are exhilarating and are less about auto-destruction than smooth moves. The film is about the tension of expressing oneself through quotation – songs with your name in them (Baby has everyone beat) – and real emotion. It is entirely about genre as the means by which we can understand, and misunderstand, the world, as when the gang acquire the wrong sort of Halloween masks for a robbery.

In the final analysis, Baby Driver is a fairy tale, as heightened as one of John Hughes’ 1980s’ teen movies such as Pretty in Pink or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Baby is like a Brylcreemed idealised 1950s’ kid with Debora his mini-skirted high school sweetheart. The stakes are ratcheted, notably in a twist towards the end, but there is an absence of cynicism. Whilst the youth in contemporary America and in Britain are being politicised, Baby Driver offers idealised, escapist candy floss. You succumb and don’t feel bad for doing so.

Why remake the American Civil War melodrama The Beguiled, the 1971 film based on a novel by Thomas P Cullinan that starred Clint Eastwood as a wounded Union soldier taken in by a house full of women in the Confederate South? I suspect part of the reason is that the original is hard to watch. The representation of female desire is crude and hysterical in the Freudian sense – one of the women is in love with her brother. Eastwood’s lusty opportunist Corporal John McBurney isn’t particularly nice either, at one point requesting that the house’s slave worker (Mae Mercer) join him in the wine cellar.

In her sixth feature, writer-director Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation) offers something more understated and, it has to be said, more sanitised, with no acknowledgement of slavery; the slave is dropped as a character.

The set-up is broadly the same, with young Amy (Oona Laurence) out picking mushrooms when she discovers the wounded soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell). In the Eastwood film, McBurney kisses 12-year-old Amy to keep her quiet, a representation of child abuse impossible to stage in a Hollywood movie today.

Amy carries the soldier back to Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies where bullets are picked out of his leg. McBurney invites sympathy and a steady stream of visitors, with only one of the young women wanting to turn him over to the ­Confederates.

As the women pray – in the film there are more prayers than meals – McBurney is restored to something near health, plying the women with compliments and offering ­solicitous concern; Farrell is at his most soft-spoken and charming. He wants to make himself useful in the garden – there is a lot of innuendo involving gardens – and is eventually treated to some “Southern hospitality”. He intimates that he is in love with the French teacher, Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), but is found in bed with Alicia (Elle Fanning). An accident follows after which Martha Farnsworth herself (Nicole Kidman) demands: “Bring me my anatomy book” – a line that prompted guffaws at the screening I attended.

Kidman’s role appears to be trimmed. Although there is a long scene in which Martha cleans McBurney’s body, her damp cloth hovering close to his covered crotch, we don’t get the scenes that suggest she and McBurney have a rapport. The surgery she performs on him isn’t quite the symbol of castration that it is in the Eastwood film – though McBurney undoubtedly feels un-manned and that he would rather be dead. Martha appears to have committed an act of self-preservation. McBurney’s act of cruelty against a turtle (yes, really) does appear to be a turning point and leads to the Grand Guignol “Southern Gothic” ­climax.

Quite apart from the low-key performances, the film is notable for the absence of a score in its first half – the only music is sung or produced by the young women – and for Philippe Le Sourd’s lush cinematography, although I lost count of the number of shots of five Ionic columns that represent Miss Martha’s school.

Coppola keeps the scenes short. We learn very little about the women themselves – there is little back-story – nor of McBurney’s background other than he took a boat from Dublin to get to America.

At no point does Coppola celebrate or ero­ticise McBurney – when he does his ­gardening, deep in a trench at one point, he is almost comical. The power that the women have over him is in their role in keeping his presence a secret; Confederate soldiers are more fearful. As such, the film isn’t a radical reimaging of the original story. Rather. it is more about the consequences of a fatal misjudgement on McBurney’s part, an unfortunate slip rather than an innate failure of masculinity.

Eccentricity is alive and well in British cinema. Andrew Kötting is living proof. His films are part documentary, part recreation. Some of his films could be called “road movies”, except his wanderers travel by foot or in one case by pedalo (in his 2012 film Swandown). His films aren’t entirely inclusive: they don’t make you share his enthusiasms. Yet when he comes up against “real life”, you connect with him. He just wants to do his own thing.

Edith Walks is a one hour and 66-second movie in which Kötting, wearing a specially decorated white suit with flying arrows, and his fellow walkers, writers Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore, musicians Jem Finer (on drum), David Aylward (on sound), artist Anonymous Bosch (on camera) and singer Claudia Barton follow the route taken by Edith Swan Neck, the wife of King Harold, from Waltham Forest to St Leonards on Sea to commune with Harold’s grave. On the way, they discuss the conspiracy theory that King Harold didn’t die at all at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, rather went into hiding and became the resistance fighter Hereward the Wake. They run into some police officers in Greenwich Park who tell them that they do not have permission to film.

One of the interesting by-products of Edith Walks is that it shows how it is possible to travel without recourse to the motorway. The film gives us a helpful set of Ordnance Survey co-ordinates. What the film doesn’t do is show an interaction with civic experts who maintain museum exhibits. Claudia, who is dressed as Edith and sings her own material, walks around monuments. The film doesn’t present artefacts as a means of understanding history.

The film is intercut with another experiment in bringing history back to life – a counterpoint. We see children re-enact the Battle of Hastings, attacking one another with wooden swords in a film shot by school teachers in 1966, on the 900th anniversary of the Battle. Kötting’s film commemorates the 950th ­anniversary – you sense he couldn’t wait for the 1,000th. When schoolboys play at history, they focus on violence. They are made giddy by the swinging of weapons, the release of aggression. Kötting’s film focuses on love – an act of devotion. Religion doesn’t come into it, since Harold was a pagan, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England.

The film builds to a coup of low-budget cinema, the swinging camera shot that moves 180 degrees up and over King Harold’s official resting place – Kötting stops short of exhumation. You are impressed that the filmmakers walked with this equipment for over 80 miles. The commemoration has Harold dead in Edith’s arms. If the film proves one thing it is that this scenario is unlikely; a legend.

A short animated piece, Forgotten the Queen, drawn by Andrew’s daughter Eden, accompanies the film. It is a dense audio sound track cut to images of flying arrows, reflecting those on Andrew’s suit.

About Patrick Mulcahy

Patrick Mulcahy is a film critic for Tribune and Chartist, to which he has contributed for over twenty years.