Reviewer: Jordan Meissner
Runtime: 94 minutes
Director: Sofia Coppola
For me, this movie was a surprise. I had heard nothing about it, I hadn’t even seen the trailer, but then Sofia Coppola won the Best Director award at Cannes and I made it my mission to find out if it was worth the acclaim. After watching the trailer I was excited for a psychological thriller, but is that what I got?
Adapted from the psychosexual 1971 film of the same name starring Clint Eastwood, The Beguiled is set at a girl’s boarding school in Virginia during the American Civil War. Only a few students and teachers with nowhere else to go remain, and their isolated lives are disrupted when an injured Union soldier arrives seeking refuge. While reluctant at first, the women offer him comfort and companionship, which quickly leads to a dangerous dance as sexual tensions threaten to throw a match into the powder keg. With a fairly simple plot, however, the real shining point for me was the development of atmosphere that is filled with an uneasy tension.
Coppola’s directorial vision reclaims the narrative from the original, as she constructs femininity from the ground up as a complex and evolving concept. She allows the woman to command the narrative, and liberates them beyond being hyper-sexualised or demonised for being mere objects of male desire. Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) in turn is more subdued, reiterated by Headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), “The enemy is not who we expected”. Eastwood’s portrayal of McBurney in the original is of a man who doesn’t, and doesn’t want to, understand women; a predator. Farrell delivers a far more insidious role, the charming gentleman who uses and abuses the misguided affections of the women he has wrapped around his fingers. He is the beguiled. The school then becomes its own war zone; the domestic and highly feminised private sphere transformed into a prison by a solitary man.
Along with great performances from Kirsten Dunst and Oona Laurence, the atmospheric tension was heightened by outstanding cinematography. In typical Coppola style, characters rarely outwardly express their desires; their intentions are revealed to the audience in lingering shots and too quiet rooms. With no soundtrack and an emphasis on naturalistic lighting, it is the stillness and monotony of waiting for something to go wrong that had me on the edge of my seat. That said, if you only watch this movie for a bit of casual fun, you’ll find yourself quickly bored. Every scene demands your attention and patience, but if you are willing to give that, I think you will find yourself engaged with something special.
This movie definitely isn’t for everyone. It’s a slow burn to say the least, and tension doesn’t give way to the gory action until well into the third act; however, this is more than made up for with substance of character and atmosphere. Coppola wonderfully encapsulates the feminine identity through her masterful direction, which is only heightened by the cinematography and sound design. Was it the thriller I expected? No, but what I got was definitely worthy of the acclaim.