Director: Sofia Coppola
Screenplay: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence
Runtime: 94 Minutes
Although based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s fictional novel about the American Civil War from the perspective of the south, The Beguiled feels like a very loose translation of the text that uses its foundations and structure for the purpose of exploring the story from a different perspective; that being the predominant shift of focus from the wounded Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) to the occupants of the girls school in which he finds himself.
The performances from the three leading women that spans nearly three separate generations are astonishingly composed. Nicole Kidman’s Miss Martha Farnsworth is the collected heart of the storm and the commanding presence in the household, Kirsten Dunst is a dainty yet unyielding Edwina Morrow, and Elle Fanning once again fills in every crevice of the coming-of-age girl into women figure that is the young temptress Alicia. All of whom fall in their own way in love with Farrell’s enemy soldier, who’s as gruff and masculine as he is a tender bag of broken pieces, and as he reforms his true identity brings wrath to the house in ways more violent than merely physical.
Sofia Coppola is a damn fine director when she wants to be, with her films often aligned with the outlooks of societal outsiders whose disenchantment and disconnection with their surrounding environments allow them to explore and indulge in their own internal wants and desires behind closed doors – the greatest manifestation of these themes being 2003’s Lost in Translation. But for the past few years, she’s really been off form by producing ever more vacuous statements about western and celebrity culture through the guise of modern stories.
The Beguiled is her first period piece since Marie Antoinette, and it’s certainly more straight-faced than the punk-infused affair that the former was. The scenery dressing and awareness of period detail and costuming is gorgeous. This is a damn good looking movie with controlled and ghostly cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd, which still manages to feel modern in the edit.
The sad feeling left of this otherwise elegant piece of filmmaking is that while its contextual standings on the vengeful south and its broad feminist perspective evoke much, it’s doesn’t feel as omnipresent in the work itself while its playing. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why as it has and a really solid structure and dialogue exchanges that rarely come across as strained or artificial. Something stronger could have possibly been brought to the table through the inclusion of African Americans that the film chooses to remove from the story, but is in the original text. Its peculiar and uncomfortable because of Coppola’s belief that she wants to protect the young female audiences from the tricky issues of race at this period in time, but her misguided efforts to cushion this blow and mute a prominent aspect of history leave the story with a sense that some prime component is missing.
The Beguiled is a luxurious looking and sounding picture with a brilliant and intelligent director at the helm – and a collection of playfully modest and physical performances to boot – but as a tailored and cut down version of the story what it gains in focus and storytelling it loses in insight to an extent. It’s still the best work she’s produced since Lost in Translation, even if its layers are thinner than they initially appear.