Film Score: 4 out of 5 (Excellent)
Director: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Colin Farrel, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning.
A dark Southern Gothic tale set in the American Civil War, The Beguiled oozes with sexual tension through suggestion and dry humour. Sofia Coppola delights in stripping away the propriety of the women and young girls at Farnsworth School like a chafing corset once wounded Union soldier Corporal James McBurney (Colin Farrel) arrives. Alfred Hitchcock would be proud of this subtle work that lingers on your brain long after viewing.
The Beguiled is a remake of the 1971 original that starred Clint Eastwood. Speaking on BBC 4’s Front Row, Sofia Coppola stated she was initially reluctant to remake the film, but after watching the original, she was motivated to re-adapt the novel of the same name.
Sofia Coppola has created a remake from the women’s perspective but The Beguiled is not bridled by a burning feminist agenda. Instead, the film speaks about desperate people trapped in a world that is ending around them. Farnsworth School, created to train young girls into Southern Belles, is now faced by the American Civil War, a conflict destroying the way of life the school upholds. The signs of collapse are everywhere; the garden quietly rots away while cannon fire roars from the battlefield, marching ever closer towards the school’s garden walls. The school’s interior has the air of a cold mortuary devoid of light or vibrancy, the indoor scenes are swathed in sombre colours and what little light there is splutters in from the windows.
Corporal James McBurney and the women see each other as their own escape from this desperate situation. To the women, James McBurney is the outside world they long for while for McBurney, the women, and the school are a sanctuary from the war he deserted. Each side realise that the other is not the escape they hoped for making them all the more desperate and unpredictable.
At its heart, The Beguiled is a dark inverted version of the Adam and Eve story. The arrival of a man to the struggling community of women draws out their desires and passions. Snippets of conversations reference the Adam and Eve story, while visually particular shots framed through the wrought iron entrance divide the garden from the outside world. Ultimately, it is those passions that McBurney stirs in the women that cause events to unfold and McBurney to be cast out of the garden.
There is not a weak performance from the cast. Nicole Kidman adds a subdued hysteria to her role as headmistress, Miss Martha Farnsworth, often projecting a wide eyed stare reminiscent of an irate Margaret Thatcher. Miss Farnsworth is similar to Kidman’s earlier role as Evelyn Stoker in Stoker, but Kidman excels regardless. The best performance is a tie between Kirsten Dunst as teacher, Edwina Morrow, and the young actresses playing the other students. Edwina truly seems like an innocent women who falls for McBurney, perceiving him as an escape from the grip of Miss Farnsworth and her school. The young actresses playing Jane, Emily, Amy, and Marie bring both comedy and tragedy to The Beguiled as they fail to hide their affection for McBurney before their innocence is crushed by what unfolds.
Visually, Sofia uses the environment alone to convey the meaning of the film. The empty halls and bare rooms add the sense of decay and abandonment, while the young children indirectly act as narrators, closing each act by scanning the horizon for troop movements in the dusk. Sofia Coppola’s spartan direction proves that she is at the peak of her powers. Other reviews have criticised The Beguiled as meandering and half formed but it is a film that expects and rewards attentive viewers.
For a story that unfolds in Virginia, The Beguiled‘s filming location of Georgia betrays it immediately in the opening scenes. The tropical foliage of the Georgia climes are the polar opposite of the milder Virginia landscape and will tear down the suspension of disbelief for some viewers who know the South.
Dunkirk is a revelatory experience of both history and cinema, but The Beguiled is a masterful story full of great performances and sparse up close visuals which draws from Stoker. In my opinion, both Dunkirk and The Beguiled are the films to watch this summer, despite what other critics say about both.
By Saul Shimmin
For the trailer, see below.