I will be the first to admit that I’m the kind of cinephile who is very much guided by star power. I’m much more likely to want to see a film that has a performer I like in it over any other leading factor, but there are a handful of directors whose projects will always be ones that I seek out, regardless of who is in them. Alongside the likes of Tarantino, Spielberg and Christopher Nolan, Sofia Coppola is a name that over the years has come to stand for great cinematic quality in my mind, with The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation being some of my absolute favourites. With the hype of being the first female to ever win the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival, I was expecting big things from Coppola’s reimagining of the The Beguiled.
Based on the 1966 Thomas P. Cullinan novel and also the 1971 big screen adaptation starring Clint Eastwood, The Beguiled tells the story of a Civil War era group of girls and women (including Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning) whose lives are significantly disturbed when they decide to nurse an injured Union soldier (Colin Farrell) back to health after finding him in the woods. Holed up in a mostly abandoned Virginia girls’ school, the soldier’s unnerving charm soon starts to influence the females around him, and the narrative descends in to a delicious examination of themes like desire, repression, adolescence and jealousy. As slow of a slow burn as you are ever likely to see, The Beguiled certainly isn’t a picture for the instant gratification crowd. With a stripped back, almost non existent musical score and the requisite languid nature of the steamy American South as an encompassing environment, the audience are taken on a hypnotic but admittedly patience testing journey that will frustrate some but satisfy those who, like me, like to be lulled in to the depths of a cinematic universe that feels tangible and authentic.
It’s easy to see why Coppola’s direction was celebrated to a milestone degree at Cannes, there are few directors I can think of who are more comfortable than her in commanding heavy, overbearing silence. Subtext is definitely the word of the day, with almost more being said in the pregnant pauses than in the actual dialogue of the piece. The themes, attitudes, even the setting of the film, everything on screen looks and feels stifling, and Coppola does not shy away from holding that tension throughout. The picture is by no means a thriller, but the level of intensity and unease keeps the audience on edge from beginning to end. That’s not to say, however, that the narrative doesn’t reach a satisfying crescendo, because it absolutely does. What is so fascinating about the narrative (in Coppola’s take, at least) is the reluctance to assign the tag of ‘villain’ to any one character. Misguided thoughts are had and bad decisions are made by both Corporal John McBurney and the cast of female teachers and students, so much so that the machinations and resolution of the plot feel almost Shakespearean in their drama and tragedy.
A slow burn of this nature really needs a captivating cast to carry it in its more trying moments, and The Beguiled certainly has that. As school mistress Martha Farnsworth, Nicole Kidman is at her stoic and slightly overbearing best, masterfully portraying a woman whose duty to her girls is being played at odds against the repressed feelings she is having for Corporal McBurney. As for McBurney, Colin Farrell possesses the perfect combination of charming and dangerous to be able to portray a character that can so confidently command a dynamic even when entirely injured and vulnerable.
As teacher Edwina Morrow, long time Coppola collaborator Kirsten Dunst arguably has the hardest role to perform. Inexperienced for her adult years, Dunst’s Edwina is immediately bewildered and excited by McBurney’s presence, and unlike Kidman’s Martha who has had a pre-war beaux, her feelings for this comparatively exotic ‘Yankee’ soldier begin to effect her in bold and boundary breaking ways. Dunst plays painfully repressed incredibly well, and in this particular picture, even better than I have seen her before. On the other side of that characterisation coin is Elle fanning as teenage student Alicia. Arguably the most ‘tropey’ of the characters on show, Fanning revels in playing a delightfully mischievous girl who is at that age where the potential of her burgeoning sexual allure is becoming increasingly clear. Too young to connect with her teachers and too old to remain connected to her junior classmates, Alicia is just as alone and frustrated as Dunst’s Edwina, but in her character the audience get to see the flip side of repression in charismatic, plot forwarding action. Altogether, the cast assembled are exquisite, big names and small names alike who compliment one another perfectly and use their vast skills to heighten every single on screen occurrence.
Overall, The Beguiled is an atmospheric treat of a period drama. On a personal level, it plays in to everything I love about cinema from the Southern Gothic vibe to the stellar cast list to the impeccable direction from a creator at the top of their game. Don’t expect a thrill a minute, but what the film ignores in terms of pace, it makes up for in terms of rich universe building and hypnotic story telling. Straight in to my top ten for the year.