The Beguiled Review
The Beguiled (2017) Film Review, a movie directed by Sofia Coppola, and starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard, Wayne Pere, Matt Story, and Joel Albin.
Few directors hold as much sway among critics and audiences alike as Sofia Coppola, and not without reason. Her strangely winsome adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ haunting coming-of-age novel The Virgin Suicides was a stunning sophomore offering for any filmmaker, and her more ambiguous-minded follow-up Lost in Translation resonates with viewers to this day even if it didn’t reach the heights that Suicides did. With all the excitement surrounding her latest outing The Beguiled, I was very excited to see how Coppola would take the 1971 Civil War drama and make it her own. Apparently, her own in this case is a slow, drab melodrama that possess none of the style or heart that made Suicides or even Translation the classics they are regarded as.
Split roughly into two halves, the first documents the appearance and subsequent taking in of wounded Union corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) by the residents of an all-girls boarding school in the South and the second focuses on said residents’ efforts to expel him once he becomes belligerent and forces them to let him stay. There is a little bit more to the story obviously, but not that much as the plot hews closely to the trajectory just described at the expense of any element of surprise it might otherwise have had. The only real surprise comes when Kirsten Dunst‘s Edwina pushes McBurney down a staircase in a jealous rage after seeing him in bed with her pupil Alicia (Elle Fanning), a significant break away from the quiet sound and dialogue driven communication that characterizes much of the movie. The resulting exacerbation of McBurney’s injury serves as the impetus for the second half and provides a much-needed raising of the stakes, but Coppola fails to capitalize on this newfound momentum by refusing to make any similarly risky moves for the rest of the film.
For a director as audacious as Coppola, the movie is astoundingly conservative in not only its narrative structure but also the manner by which said narrative is rendered. Unlike the highly-stylized approach of Suicides or even the less-involved approach of Translation, Beguiled adopts a clinical, almost detached perspective attitude towards the characters and events it depicts, portraying them with all the passion of a JSTOR article. Conversation revolves almost entirely around the residents’ questions and suspicions about what kind of man McBurney is and how much their “Christian duty” to him obliges them to accommodate him except for the times when no one else is around and they try and flirt with him. These interactions give us some idea of who the corporal and his admirers are, but it remains mostly just that as they rarely venture deeper than surface level. The movie seems to expect us to put more emphasis on the upspoken communication between the characters, but the girls’ attraction to McBurney is so obvious that it feels patronizing for the movie to think that we need multiple scenes of them sneaking to his room to see him or giggling in his presence to grasp this fact.
One of the few strengths The Beguiled does have is a cast whose nuanced performances add meat to the bare bones story. As the school’s self-controlled matriarch Martha Farnsworth, Nicole Kidman projects coolheaded authority with her mere presence. She’s not domineering or overbearing, but that’s because she doesn’t need to be since no one, not even McBurney when he’s at his worst, takes her lightly. Her only sign of weakness surfaces after she is escorting the corporal to his room and, having had a drink or two before, she leans in for a kiss before the noise of the girls running elsewhere around the house deters her from advancing further. Still, it says a lot about Miss Farnsworth’s character that it’s her desires rather than McBurney’s that almost get the best of her.
Martha’s strength of mind and resolve are amply demonstrated throughout, as seen when she and Edwina are forced to operate on McBurney. Although Edwina is in tears at the prospect of severing the leg of her paramour, Martha remains in control and sternly sends her to get the tools necessary for the surgery. But at the last minute she remembers to ask for one more thing: “Miss Morrow. Get me the anatomy book.” Delivered as curtly matter of fact as anything else she says in the film and supported by nothing more than Kidman’s steely glare, it’s a surprisingly badass scene for such a restrained movie.
The most interesting relationship, however, is not between Martha and McBurney but between McBurney and Edwina. Dunst, in a turn that has echoes of the similarly repressed Lux in Suicides, brings a vulnerability to the role that cleverly inverts the relationship between her and the injured deserter, with her becoming dependent on him instead of the other way around. Not only that, but a certain sense of forbidden attraction and repressed sensuality exists between the two. Unable to act on their feelings, they are forced to find other ways to express their interest in each other without drawing the attention of the school’s other residents. While McBurney works in the yard one day, he notices Edwina peering through a window at him and the two share a knowing glance before several of the girls’ stroll by.
This passive interaction, of course, contrasts with a much more passionate one later on wherein Edwina locks herself in McBurney’s room after he threatens Farnsworth and the girls and the two have their way with each other. It’s loud, it’s violent, it’s the perfect climax for the relationship between the impressionable Southerner and the magnetizing Yankee. One of the girls’ comments in disgust that Martha is doing nothing to stop them, but the headmistress wisely uses the time to devise a plan to dispose of McBurney once and for all. It’s tempting to think in binary terms when determining if Edwina made the decision to offer herself to the corporal in order to convince him to spare the others or simply to fulfill their feelings for each other, but the truth, like in most things, likely lies somewhere in between the two.
While it would be unfair to call it a terrible movie, it’s equally unfair to call it a great one knowing that Coppola is actually capable of making great films. Bereft of tension and inspiration, The Beguiled is bewildering in its absence of atmosphere and drama but narrowly saved by performances that are greater than the sum they’re a part of .
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