UK Release Date: 14th July 2017
Runtime: 94 minutes
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writer: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Colin Farrell, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice
Synopsis: An injured Union soldier causes a stir of a political and sexual nature for a house full of women in rural Virginia during the American Civil War, far from the violence of the frontline.
Depictions of women in lonely or isolated situations have been a constant thread running through the filmography of Sofia Coppola, right from her debut film The Virgin Suicides. That theme has once again risen to the surface for her take on The Beguiled – adapted from the original novel by Thomas P Cullinan and serving as a remake with a difference of the 1971 adaptation of the material that placed Clint Eastwood in the leading role. In Coppola’s movie, the women are at the centre of this American Civil War story and, this time around, Colin Farrell doesn’t know what’s hit him.
Union soldier Corporal McBurney (Farrell) is discovered lying injured beneath a tree by young girl Amy (Oona Laurence). She helps him back to the all-female school where she lives, under the care of tough matriarch Martha (Nicole Kidman). The presence of an enemy soldier initially leads to calls for them to involve the Confederate forces, but the women take the decision to nurse him back to health. While he is recuperating, Corporal McBurney begins to grow close to Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), but teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning) seems to become very flirtatious whenever he is around.
I can’t recall a film this year that is as immediately visually striking as The Beguiled, which opens with a shot of jaw-dropping beauty, as light filters through the canopy of a wood, filling every inch of the screen with a dreamlike glare. The peace is soon shattered by the arrival of Colin Farrell, adding brutish masculinity to this otherwise elegant scene. From there, The Beguiled never loses its woozy visual feel, with Sofia Coppola’s careful direction perfectly suited to finding the peculiar beauty of its isolated building and its grounds – a strange, verdant utopia in the heart of an ugly war zone. This is a film that grips you immediately with its visual splendour, before the plot even begins to unravel.
Fortunately, that plot is every bit as impressive as the visuals. The Beguiled is a gripping and absorbing film that, if you’re anything like me and haven’t seen the original, consistently surprises with the pathways it travels. Every time you feel as if you have the measure of its plotting, it spins off into a different idea completely. It’s interesting that Coppola paints the tale so firmly from the female perspective, leaving it unclear whether Farrell’s character is a beguiler or a beguilee. It moves into rather more conventional territory on the road to an ending that’s slightly unsatisfying, but the journey to get there boasts plenty of surprises.
Given Coppola’s steadfastly female perspective, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Farrell stands out as something of a weak link in the ensemble. His performance is several orders of magnitude bigger than it needs to be, particularly when compared to the delightfully subtle work being done by Kirsten Dunst as the repressed, buttoned-up schoolteacher having a sexual awakening just as revelatory as the more conventional one affecting Elle Fanning’s adolescent, who walks the line between temptress and naive little girl. Pick of the bunch, though, is Nicole Kidman, delivering a performance of exquisite control that brings The Beguiled to life.
The Beguiled is a rather flawed piece of work, but one that packs a punch in its stronger moments. There’s a florid exploitation feel to its more extreme moments and an impressive degree of subtlety to the interplay between its characters. It’s a film that features performances which will almost certainly reward repeat viewings and constructs a bizarre dream world away from one of the most turbulent and complex conflicts in American history.
Pop or Poop?
Sofia Coppola has constructed another impressive tale of women in isolation with The Beguiled, which is a Civil War story told through female eyes. The performances are nuanced and intriguing, with the possible exception of Farrell’s rather-too-unhinged turn, and their interplay is intriguing enough to paper over some of the more unsatisfying narrative cracks.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.