At the end of The Beguiled, as I was thinking, “what did I just watch?”
I heard a man mutter, “That’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen.”
Clearly, this latest film from Sofia Coppola, which earned her Best Director at Cannes, is not going to satisfy everyone. I found it, well, beguiling. It is a beautifully crafted, strange, suspenseful character study that feels like a play and looks like a painting.
The Beguiled starts in Virginia, three years into the Civil War, at Miss Martha’s (Nicole Kidman) school for girls. Just Miss Martha; one of the teachers, Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst); and a handful of students, Amy (Oona Laurence), Alicia (Elle Fanning), Jane (Angourie Rice), Marie (Addison Riecke), and Emily (Emma Howard), remain. The rest of the students and staff have gone home because of the war. When out harvesting wild mushrooms in the woods, Amy stumbles upon Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded Union soldier. Although he is, as Jane repeatedly calls him, “a hated enemy,” Amy brings him back to the school to have his wounds tended to. Miss Martha permits him to stay during his convalescence, and plans to turn him over to the Confederate soldiers nearby as soon as he is stable enough to survive. During his stay, Corporal McBurney inserts drama and unexpected tension into the lives of the seven isolated women.
Sofia Coppola uses a technique in The Beguiled that I recognized from my favorite of her films, Marie Antoinette. She contrasts the expansive natural world outside the doors of the school with the closed-off, limited lives the women are living. The film is full of scenes that capture massive trees, large gardens, and a lush forest, and then the audience is brought back inside the house, which is spacious, but closed in. Coppola uses very little music, so instead the sounds of birds and bugs dominate the exterior scenes while the chorus of ladies’ shoes on wooden floors fills the house. The contrast makes the house seem a little claustrophobic, adding to the tension of the plot.
In terms of plot, not a lot happens in The Beguiled, but the emotional turmoil the arrival of an enemy soldier causes is both suspenseful and a bit comical. As the women jockey for the attention of the stranger–some over a shared interest in birds (Amy), others over sexual tension (Miss Martha, Edwina, Alicia)–a sense of dread looms over the film. As Corporal McBurney manipulates the women, sweet talking each in his own way, it becomes clear that someone is going to get hurt. Emotional tension turns to physical violence in an unexpected, bizarre way that I found deliciously dramatic. Coppola uses two Checkov’s guns and only one is actually a gun.
The acting in the film is not as moving as the cinematography and sound production, but it is still strong. Colin Farrell is not as out-matched by Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst as I thought he would be, but to a certain degree, John is the same character Farrell always plays: charming Irish guy who all the ladies fall for and then bad stuff happens. Nicole Kidman’s accent is pretty transient. Sometimes she’s Australian; sometimes she’s Virginian. Nevertheless, her performance is reserved and elegant and suitably authoritarian for the character. The younger girls really stand out to me. The Beguiled is kind of like the anti-Little Women. It isn’t feel-good at all, but it provides several meaty parts for young actresses. Oona Laurence was especially good, but Angourie Rice and Addison Riecke also carry scenes on their own.
The Beguiled is not a summer popcorn movie and it is not going to impress everyone. Nonetheless, I found it intriguing, suspenseful and gorgeously produced. I rate it 4/5 stars.
The Beguiled was directed and written by Sofia Coppola, based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan. It runs 93 minutes and is rated R for brief sexuality.
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