Film Review: Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’

Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” is an atmospheric thriller with visuals and performances that burrow under your skin.

A remake of the 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood film, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled tells the story of a Southern girls boarding school that takes in a wounded Union soldier in the midst of the Civil War.  As the women nurse him back to health, their initial suspicions turn to curiosity and then attraction as they slip in and out of his room, doting on him and silently vying for his attention.  The sexual tension reaches a breaking point when the soldier’s nature is revealed and the women of the house are forced to reckon with the new man who’s before them.

Coppola’s direction, which won the Best Director award at the 2017 Cannes International Film Festival, is phenomenal and fleshes out the tepid plot with specificity and magnetic storytelling.  Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography in The Beguiled is stunning, highlighting the smallest intimacies through a distant frame, the edges smudged and lines blurred.  The color palette runs together, muted pastels and dark trees blend together as light and shadow hide what’s in plain sight.  In fact, the film is veiled under a shroud of fog as the women watch the days bleed together and fade into the night, peering through a telescope on the lookout, hoping for the emergence of Confederates through the mist.

The actors in The Beguiled are perfectly cast and inject the film with a raw desperation under the veneer of Southern hospitality, with Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, and Colin Farrell deftly leading the small ensemble.  We watch the women float from scene to scene, their molecules changing the atmosphere, wide eyes and upturned corners of mouths give away what she dare not say.  We watch the women walk on eggshells when toxic masculinity is thrust upon them, when one false step, however well intentioned, is seen aa a deliberate act of warfare.  Nicole Kidman plays Miss Martha, head of the school, and we watch her wrestle with her duty and her desires churning below the surface as she slips under Colonel McBurney’s (Colin Farrell) spell.  Kirsten Dunst is Edwina, the teacher, under Miss Martha’s ever watchful and occasionally accusatory eye.  She prays she won’t fall for him and prays he’ll fall for her, but both her wish and her nightmare are granted when he compliments her on her beauty and proposes they leave town.  She is as faultlessly naive as her pupil Alicia, played by Elle Fanning, whose spirits immediately improve at the Colonel’s arrival, sneaking him kisses and finding pleasure in primping herself in a mirror for him.

Colin Farrell’s Colonel McBurney gobbles up these flirtations, helping himself to seconds and thirds, satisfying his appetite.  He is acutely aware of his ranking in this house of women: a wounded Yankee, fresh meat for the Confederates only miles away, and he is acutely aware of his power in this house of women, calibrating his natural charm to suit each woman’s desires, earning her trust, anything that will secure a future for him out of Confederate hands.  

After Edwina discovers him in Alicia’s bedroom late at night, she pushes McBurney and he falls down the winding staircase, destroying his already injured leg, and Miss Martha and Edwina are forced with the reality of amputation as the only means to save his life.  Whatever goodwill or camaraderie has grown between McBurney and the women shatters when McBurney awakes after the surgery shrieking, beside himself, mourning for his precious limb.  The initial shock plunges into a rage, at Martha, at Edwina, at all the women.  He ignores their rationale, asking if they’re in this together, this plot to keep him in the house, seeing the amputation as retribution for sneaking into Alicia’s room and not Edwina’s, as he promised he would.  That existing without a leg, without his manhood, he would rather be dead.  

The Beguiled creeps up on you.  Innocent flirtations around the dinner table, sneaking in and out of the drawing room turned hospital wing, once received warmly becomes dangerous territory when the threat in the house is exposed.  There is no going back after that, no matter how hard they try, and the women must decide to either tame the beast or put him down.

The Beguiled opens in select theaters in New York and LA June 23th, expanding to more theaters June 30th.

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