The Beguiled bite back in Sofia Coppola’s acid-barbed drama
Director: Sofia Coppola Starring: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning Running Time: 94 minutes
The films of Sofia Coppola have always been drawn to the loneliness of the privileged, the longings and feelings of isolation of people who on the face of it, should have it all. In adapting The Beguiled, Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel previously put on screen from the decidedly more male perspectives of Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood in 1971, Coppola pushes her usual focus even further. The privileged here are the Southern belles of a Virginia girls school during the American Civil War, their isolation a gated-off manor, longing for the fathers and husbands and men-folk off fighting the losing side in a moral divide, even their hardships are a result of the school’s slaves not being around anymore. It may seem like too much Coppola at first glance, but in this repressed white erotica of furtive glances and fancy dresses, she uses restraint to great effect, resulting in a lean, sharp film, taking her usual privileged perspective and flipping it to comment on another.
Amy, one of the young charges of the Farnsworth Seminary For Young Ladies, is out picking mushrooms in the woods when she comes across a wounded soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) of the Union Army. With McBurney laying the charm down thick and fast even as his leg bleeds heavily, the girl is quickly convinced to bring him back to the school for medical attention at the hands of the stern headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), the few ladies left at the school assuring themselves that they’re keeping this man around out of Christian compassion and absolutely not because he looks like Colin Farrell. Confined to the music room while he recovers from his injuries, the handsome stranger at the foot below everyone’s bedrooms is an immediate distraction to everyone at the Seminary. The young girls are crushing hard (“Johhnnnn” they titter dreamily, even knowing a man’s first name a little thrill) and teenager Alicia’s hormones are set ablaze, Elle Fanning’s big eyes sending out long, eager to be noticed stares. The reticent schoolteacher Edwina, played by Kirsten Dunst, sees affection for what is probably the first time, and the desperate hope of escape, in the image of this foreign outsider. While Martha, trying as she does to hold on to her scepticism, can’t help but be drawn into John’s carefully calculated game of manners, with her husband lost to the war, her steely resolve is vulnerable. Behind closed doors, John lays back and chuckles. He thinks he has easy pickings here.
Using his native brogue (the better to beguile with), Farrell moderates his performance with subtlety depending on who he’s talking to. It’s all a charm offensive, but he taps into the various desires and insecurities of the ladies of the school with the cynical precision of a pick-up artist. His smarmy snake-oil routine is all the more compelling for how effective it is, we might not get swept up in it but it’s easy to see why the other character are, from his Lyle Lanley manipulation of Amy to his preying on Edwina’s vulnerability, this is man who know how to get what he wants and feels that he’s entitled to it. When things start to go against him (very, very badly), Farrell shows his true colours vibrantly, this is Stanley Kowalski in Mr. Darcy’s linen shirt, a force that keeps the film barreling through its quick 94 minutes even as the film appears slow and steady. Struggling to keep their propriety in the face of his quiet chaos, Kidman and in particular Dunst shine, more screen time for the latter would have appreciated as Edwina barely contains her desire to flourish, only to be crumpled harder than ever, the occasions when Dunst and Kidman clash so charged as to leave viewers wanting more barbs and side-eyes.
Coppola finds wit in the women’s sniping, but even better is the humour that is communicated visually, with a lot of focus on what is worn by whom and why. The vivid female gaze over Farrell (slowly washed in the Virginia heat) and the typically lavish detail in the dresses, the fancy house and the surrounding foggy woods show the director’s usual good eye, but they’re not shallow images, they draw us into the same sense of security as the corporal. Who has the power here, the dainty rich girls or the wicked macho man, is blurred in the soft focus of the lens. The repeated shots of smoke beyond the trees a subliminal sleight of hand: the violence is far away. The presence of the band Phoenix to provide the film’s music seems like a self-indulgent move, but the score is quiet and rare, allowing every sigh, distant gunshot and wildlife noise to be heard and root viewers in the same headspace as the characters. This is a very Sofia Coppola film, with all that that implies, but it’s a restrained take on American Gothic. There are many stories in the heat of the American south about women who feel trapped in cages with awful men. Wry, entertaining, engrossing, The Beguiled presents one where the women aren’t locked in with their lout. He’s locked in with them.(4 / 5)