DIR/WRI: Sofia Coppola • PRO: Youree Henley • DOP: Philippe Le Sourd • ED: Sarah Flack • DES: Anne Ross • MUS: Laura Karpman Phoenix • CAST: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Colin Farrell, Oona Laurence
Set in Virginia during the peak of the Civil War, Sofia Coppola’s reimagining of Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel The Beguiled and Don Siegel’s 1971 film adaptation of the same name internalises the conflict of war to create a tense yet hugely engaging thriller. Under the deceptive guise of antebellum elegance and Victorian social graces, emotions shimmer close to the surface as Coppola explores the delicate balancing act between humanity’s capacity for goodness and immense violence.
When a badly wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), finds refuge in an all-girls boarding school occupied solely by its headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), instructor Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and five students who have been stranded there by the war, fear and suspicion begin to give way to unspoken desire. Initially determined to hand the Yankee over to Confederate forces as soon as possible, the excitement of having a male presence in their home, and one dependent on them for everything, due to his wounds, delays John’s fate as the women proclaim ‘Christian charity’ so that they may keep their pet a little while longer. With the ominous sounds of musket-fire ever present in the distance, another war within the walls of the school begins as desire becomes jealousy, jealousy becomes despair. Having tried so hard to keep themselves isolated from the horrific violence taking place in the real world just outside their front gates, the women must now confront the ugliness of human nature in their own front parlour.
The soft, almost ethereal lighting and muted colours create a dreamy world in which Coppola utilises each shot to its best advantage. The juxtaposition between the clean white muslin of the women’s dresses compared to John’s rugged and bloodied uniform and the external world it represents, leaving their embroidered pillows mucky and unclean, both draws attention to the reality of the historical time period in which the film is set yet seeks to alienate the audience from it to better convey the timeless psychological elements of the narrative. There is a restraint to the camerawork that elevates the character’s internal struggles all the while keeping the surface level stunning to look at. All of this is complimented by the Grade A performances from the film’s stellar cast. Nicole Kidman in particular is compulsively watchable and brings a finesse to her role that only an actor of her skill could. Colin Farrell is also quite strong here, manoeuvring the cracks between charming and intimidating with ease.
It is unusual that this film suffers from the very thing that mires other works of cinema; at barely an hour and a half, the film could have been allowed an extra twenty minutes. The climax of the film, while not exactly rushed, is not as impactful as it should be due to the clipped manner in which the events immediately prior unfold. Other aspects of the narrative also could have done with some more elaboration.
Overall The Beguiled feels like a classic with an alternative twist. Beautiful, tense and engaging, the film will lure you in with every frame.
15A (See IFCO for details)
The Beguiled is released 7th July 2017