Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Colin Farrell, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Reicke, Emma Howard
Thomas P Cullinan’s 1966 novel The Beguiled was first adapted for the screen by Don Siegel in 1971 with Clint Eastwood in the lead (immediately preceding their collaboration on Dirty Harry) in a film which played up the story’s horror elements. Writer-director Sofia Coppola’s adaptation, for which she won best director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a different film. While also a trimmed down, streamlined version of Cullinan’s story, Coppola gives it a distinctively feminist perspective, aligning our point of view with the female characters.
1864, Virginia. It is three years into the American Civil War, the result of which is becoming clearer by the day. A young girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), finds a wounded Yankee soldier, Corp. John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in the woods and offers to take him back to Ms Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies for treatment. At the seminary, a large plantation house, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) look after five young ladies. While voicing their disapproval of having a ‘blue belly’ in their midst, the seven women determine that the Christian thing to do is to allow him to recuperate before turning him over to the Confederate army. Having not seen a man for some time, the women, both young and mature, become fascinated by this supposedly ‘unwelcome’ guest. He is a breath of fresh air, an exotic other, and a mysterious temptation. With McBurney in the house, everyone is dressing just a little bit nicer while hoping no one else notices. But as he regains his strength, a situation that seems like a dream becomes a nightmare, and his presence goes from being titillating to menacing.
Sofia Coppola has never been a narratively driven storyteller, so The Beguiled is somewhat of a departure for her. Part melodrama, part psychosexual thriller, with just a dash of black comedy, this is the closest thing to a genre picture she has done. But while The Beguiled contains more clear narrative drive, more dialogue, and more concise, pacey storytelling than we are used to seeing from Coppola, it retains her flair for creating characters and effectively placing them in an environment that reflects and enhances them.
As this man enters a world of women, he fires in them a mixture of emotions: lust, envy, maternalism. In the pent up sexuality of Miss Martha and Miss Edwina, and the blossoming sexuality of Alicia (Elle Fanning), the oldest of the students on the verge of womanhood, we see a complex wrestling between piety and desire. Coppola heightens this by placing a visual focus on bodies, primarily McBurney’s. From early on, whether in the gruesome shots of Miss Martha sewing up his wounds, or in more sensual moments as she bathes him, the camera lingers close on bodies, on hands, on skin.
Despite its Civil War setting, The Beguiled remains largely apolitical. It does not encourage us to take sides on ideological lines. This is a film about characters rather than context, and those characters are interesting and conflicted. Having joined the Union army for the money shortly after arriving from Ireland, and then deserting once he got injured, McBurney is a survivor rather than an ideologue. Those survival instincts now lead him to ingratiate himself to each of these women. So he must be someone slightly different around each of them. There are constantly shifting power dynamics at play in the house, and shifts in tone are handled deftly. Is he manipulating them or are they controlling him? Is he their guest or their prisoner?
As compelling as the characterisation and performances is the setting. With the sound of cannon fire ever-present on the wind, Ms Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies would seem to be an oasis of sorts, a place of feminine civility hidden away from the horrors of the war. However, we never get the sense of it being a paradise. The house is delicate and sophisticated, but feels dark, musty and closed in. As the narrative progresses, the set decoration subtly changes, becoming less intricate, more sparse. Production designer Anne Ross and set decorator Amy Silver use strong Southern gothic vibes to create a place that not only becomes a prison for McBurney, but has been one for the women all along.
The Beguiled is a subtle and entrancing piece of genre filmmaking with a tone and energy that makes it quite distinct from much contemporary cinema.
Review by Duncan McLean
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