Film Review: The Beguiled

by Carrie Kahn on June 30, 2017

Coppola returns to form with seductive Southern gothic drama 

Union soldier John (Colin Farrell) and Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) find a moment alone. 

In its 70-year history, the Cannes Film Festival has only awarded its Best Director prize to a female director twice; the first was in 1961 (to Soviet filmmaker Yuliya Solntseva for Chronicle of Flaming Years, a tale of Nazi resistance in the Soviet Union), and the second was this May, to writer/director Sofia Coppola for The Beguiled. While the Festival sadly took some 50 years before bestowing this honor on another woman, this year’s award hopefully signals a real shift toward providing opportunities for, and recognizing the accomplishments of, women in film. That said, the concern of this review, of course, is the film itself: are Coppola and her new film worthy of the prize? The answer, thankfully, is a resounding yes.

For her first film since 2013’s mediocre style-over-substance The Bling Ring, writer/director Coppola here remakes a 1971 Don Siegel-directed Clint Eastwood picture, which itself was based on a 1966 novel of the same name by Thomas Cullinan, and fares infinitely better. The story of a wounded Union soldier who finds refuge in a nearly abandoned Confederate girls’ school during the waning days of the Civil War, Cullinan’s pulpy drama was filtered through Eastwood’s soldier’s eyes in the ’71 original. With this remake, however, Coppola has shifted the narrative perspective to that of the seven female inhabitants of Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies. Young Amy (Oona Laurence, Bad Moms), out gathering mushrooms for supper, finds the injured Yankee Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell, in the Eastwood role), alone and badly in need of help. She guides him back to the Seminary, putting into motion a series of events that will affect both Corporal McBurney and the Seminary’s other residents.

Those residents include the prim and proper Miss Martha Farnsworth herself (a steely Nicole Kidman), junior teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), the watchful teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning), and younger girls Jane (Angourie Rice), Marie (Addison Riecke), and Emily (Emma Howard). Several of the girls are scared to house the enemy soldier on the property, but Martha makes a decision to allow Corporal McBurney to stay until he is healed; at that point, she tells the girls, they will alert passing Confederate soldiers, who will then take McBurney away as a prisoner.

John (Colin Farrell) and Alicia (Elle Fanning) also share a charged moment.

As McBurney and his rescuers size each other up, alliances, motivations, and suspicions shift and change among the characters, creating an atmosphere as thick with unspoken tension as the humid Virginia air. Coppola, of course, is interested in the question of just who the Beguiled is at any given point, and does a terrific job of constantly swapping the charmed and the charmer, so the viewer is always on edge and awaiting the next move, as in some sort of overheated, mysterious chess game.

Indeed, the picture has a Southern gothic sensibility more than a little reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor. An almost dangerous lushness surrounds the vast house and grounds, and Coppola makes great use of light – both in outdoor and indoor shots – to create a visually stunning backdrop for the power play at the heart of the film.

Of course all this atmospheric foreboding would be wasted if Coppola’s cast weren’t up to the challenge of bringing this period melodrama to life; luckily, the film provides an exceptional showcase for some of the finest actresses working today. Kidman does easily her best work in years here, portraying Martha as a stoic, genteel woman of her times, whose true feelings are buried deep under simmering layers of repression and longing. Dunst, too, is masterful at maintaining an imperturbable facade that covers up stifled passion and intense, aching depth of feeling. And Fanning, similar to her role in last year’s 20th Century Women, deftly conveys the restless, bored, pouty air of a girl on the precipice of womanhood, coming of age in society that wants to quash her naturally budding curiosity, sexual and otherwise.

Martha (Nicole Kidman) considers her options as she harbors a wounded Union soldier.

As the only man present, then, Farrell’s John by default becomes the proverbial fox in the henhouse, and Farrell matches the actresses’ prowess here with his complex, expertly shaded performance as a man whose true motivations aren’t always clear – to himself, or to the audience. That John’s fate rests in the hands of a group of women who aren’t as easily manipulated as his 19th century upbringing may have led him to believe makes for a sharp comment on both Southern gentility as well as the traditional Civil War narrative, which gets turned on its head here in brilliant fashion.

Hauntingly beautiful and quietly devastating, The Beguiled was also nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the Festival’s highest prize. Though it didn’t end up winning, there’s little doubt that Coppola’s film will take home more accolades when awards season kicks into gear in the fall. Perhaps next winter another milestone will be reached: Coppola just may become only the second female director to win a Best Director Oscar, too.

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The Beguiled opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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