Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning
It's been a minute since I've been able to put into words my thoughts on a new movie. I've recently relocated to Los Angeles from Atlanta and have spent the past month re-establishing my entire life. Now, I'm here, and it's time to catch up.
Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled is an intrinsic and quiet look at compassion, loyalty, and passion. Told through the eyes of a group of Southern belles during the height of the Civil War, the film traipses through familiar tropes, finding meaning in the darkest of moments that reveal a fine line between human desire and the right thing to do. Highlighted by awards-worthy performances from its cast, The Beguiled is Coppola's most affecting film since Somewhere, showing its strength in its quietest moments.
Nicole Kidman stars as Martha Farnsworth, the leader of a girls prep school in Virginia. While the War of Northern Aggression has all-but wiped out the school's and the town's population, Ms. Martha continues the daily lessons of five young girls as if nothing is happening at all. Though their daily lessons, including sewing and music, continue as planned, there are elements of awareness of what's happening just beyond the property line. Varied booms and blasts of canon and gun fire interrupt otherwise normal school days.
When the young Amy (Oona Laurence) is out finding mushrooms for the night's dinner, she comes across a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell) and, in the sense of Christ's compassion, chooses to escort him back to the plantation, as opposed to leaving him there to die. This extended welcome to, not only the enemy, but also a male, opens the door for carnal desires to appear and sets off a chain of events that includes betrayal, fear, and revenge.
Kidman holds the film together with a steely persistence. Her cold demeanor elevates each interaction, shadowing her ability to lead the group of girls with disciplined abandon, but also falling prey to her own interests when it comes to Corporal McBurney. Kirsten Dunst, as Ms. Martha's right hand woman, Edwina, holds the heart of the film, earning a burning desire for male companionship and, perhaps, falling the most for this new male figure. Elle Fanning, bustling as the eldest of the students, fruitfully teases her own interests to the Corporal more than once and, with innocence, is the first to truly act on physicality.
Coppola's strength has always been the study of privileged women, especially privileged white women. What works in each of her stories is not how privileged the women are, but in fact the opposite. Some of the women take advantage of their privilege (The Bling Ring), others do not realized how lucky they are (The Virgin Suicides). Some relish in what feels like the norm (Marie Antoinette), and some are just on the cusp of that realization (Somewhere). In The Beguiled, Coppola shapes her own studies the most, delivering a glimpse of womanhood as both competition and strong-willed ambition.
When Corporal McBurney finally snaps and begins his ultimate struggle for superiority, the film also shows community through womanhood in a refreshing light. The coming together for the greater good is, sadly, a trope not seen often enough.
The film is beautifully shot, settling on the gothic grandeur of life in the South at the time. The white pillars of the house and the intricate and ornate details of the decor elevate the emptiness of the time. Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd use natural lighting and deep shadows to frame each shot, bringing to life the southern heat and relentless atmosphere to its fullest levels. The same can be said for the costuming, both historically and beautifully crafted, but never becoming the main focal point.
When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, the film was lauded for its steady handling of the story and Coppola's fantastic vision behind the camera (in fact, she was awarded the Best Director trophy, only the second time the prize has been awarded to a woman). The film deserves to be seen for its artistry. It's worth seeing for its sizzling use of the thriller genre. You may leave feeling like not much happened, but that slow-burning, edge-of-your-seat effect is exactly what Coppola intends. It's realistic in the same sense it's absurd.
Runtime: 1h 33min