Release: Friday, June 30, 2017
Written by: Sofia Coppola
Directed by: Sofia Coppola
The Beguiled is an unsettling, moody drama set against the American Civil War that finds a wounded Union soldier being taken in and nursed back to health by the inhabitants of a secret all-girls school in Virginia. These women, who have lived a pious but sheltered life, find themselves irrevocably changed by the intrusion of the outside world upon their guarded stoop. Beware: the sexual tension can be killer.
It’s not often you see a film set during this period told from the point of view of women. History is never short of a few omissions, and here is a fictional yarn that seems to inhabit such a space. It tells a story not necessarily about the Civil War, per se, but one heavily influenced by it — a mirroring of war’s disruptive and destructive nature. The Beguiled is a movie chiefly about sexual repression, but if with that description you think you’ve got it figured out, think again. This is a much broader critique of society, for when our most basic needs are not met how desperate we become, how quickly we seem to forget our humanity. The Beguiled tends to prove how thin a veil civility really can be.
Colin Farrell inherits the part famously played by Clint Eastwood in an against-type role as Corporal John McBurney, a fighter for the Union cause who suffers a leg injury and, somewhat ignobly, abandons the war. (Cowardice is certainly not a trait you see Eastwood embracing all too often, though it’s even harder to picture him playing the part of an Irish immigrant.) When a young girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), is out one day picking mushrooms, she comes across the bloodied man and bravely decides to help him hobble back to the school. There, the stern Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) assesses his condition and determines they have no choice but to tend to the wounded, but also that no other pleasantries shall be extended the stranger.
As he convalesces, McBurney begins having a strange effect on some of the girls — particularly the ones who are, in theory anyway, coming-of-age. The strictures of their daily existence have clearly stunted emotional growth. Natural instincts are bound like hands behind one’s back. The mere physical presence of the soldier, whose intentions are purposefully left unclear, introduces a palpable tension which the narrative relies increasingly upon as the film develops. The Beguiled doesn’t offer much in the way of visceral drama; the battles raging all around are so tangential they don’t even appear in frame. Inside this house a different kind of war is quietly being waged. And not for nothing, the injury the soldier has sustained serves as a pretty effective reminder of what he has left behind.
There is a caveat to unlocking the film’s dark secrets. To get to the good stuff, you have to endure an excruciatingly slow opening half hour. I sat through the entirety of The Bling Ring, but struggled not to walk out early here. Such is the meditative nature of the film. The deliberate pace and sparse action — even dialogue — remains a necessary evil if you are to appreciate the gravity of the simple act of betrayal that occurs later on.
Fortunately the impressive cast assembled makes even these drier, less eventful scenes more watchable. Coppola attracts a range of talent and ages to fulfill the roles of this tight-knit community still hanging on, tooth and nail, to their way of life while the unpredictable violence continues to rage on all around, shaping the world into something too ugly and dangerous for any of them to be a part of. But at what cost has this sheltering from perceived harm come?
Kirsten Dunst, a Coppola favorite (Marie Antoinette; The Virgin Suicides) once again delivers in a complex role as schoolteacher Edwina Morrow. Her character demonstrates stability, an unyielding devotion to the education of the young girls. But then she also has eyes for the newcomer. Dunst is a real stand-out in a pivotal role, whose conviction in the character is really only matched by Kidman’s impressive solemnity and Elle Fanning’s precariously hormonal state. The trio are given ample support from two young up-and-comers in Angourie Rice (the precocious young detective from The Nice Guys) and the aforementioned Laurence (Billy Hope’s voice of reason in Southpaw), who crucially contribute innocence and naivety to an increasingly hostile and unstable environment.
The Beguiled may be defined more by its cast than by anything it offers in the way of escapism. Drowned out by the indefatigable wave of superhero films that has been en vogue for close to a decade now, it’s something of an unconventional mid-summer release. You won’t have much competition for seats in the theater, that’s for sure. But don’t be like me. Don’t be so quick to judge the film by its tedious opening, by the preciousness of its appearance. This is a grim affair, whose wildly unpredictable shift in mood will linger long after credits roll. It’s arguably the darkest film Sofia Coppola has made thus far. That counts for a lot in my book.
Recommendation: Darkly and disturbingly seductive. The Southern gothic drama The Beguiled pairs a great cast with a director with an avant-garde style that is, notably, suppressed here in favor of allowing the performances to rise to the top. It’s not the film everyone’s going to this July, but it offers a lot to recommend for fans of Coppola, the cast and period dramas with a unique perspective.
Running Time: 93 mins.
Quoted: “We can show ’em some real Southern hospitality . . . “
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