Film Review: The Beguiled

By Tony Inglis, Tara Fitzpatrick and Niall Christie

The latest film from award-winning director Sophia Coppola has split opinion across the World. Here’s what our three reviewers had to say.

TI: Sofia Coppola is a director with an auteur sensibility and, on first glance, her new film, The Beguiled, seems to stray as far from the recognisable flourishes which mark out her films as anything else in her body of work.

However, they are all still here, buried in a ripe, gothic tale set in civil war stricken America. The fact they shine through as Coppola has fun playing with genre here makes it all the more rich and impressive a piece of work.

The story follows the reaction of a group of southern seminary girls and their mother figure, Nicole Kidman, as they take in an injured Union soldier, played by Colin Farrell. The movie is beautifully shot, capturing the action often through low hanging trees and wrought iron fences.

The voyeuristic feeling this creates, coupled with the use of natural light both outside and within the mansion setting’s vast walls, adds to the feeling of foreboding and tension.

This is the closest Coppola has come to making a straight thriller, with horror inflections, but it builds with a patience and subtlety that refrains from granting the viewer their gratuitous wishes of climax until deep into the movie’s final third.

What Coppola wants us to focus on are themes of her work: repressed desire, the curiosity of the unknown, maturing sexuality and strong, empowered female characters. Colin Farrell’s real life handsome bad boy image is put to good use here – Coppola subverts our expectations of Hollywood as it is Farrell who is objectified and lingered upon.

Most jarring for me was the music. Coppola’s works are intrinsically linked with their accompanying soundtracks. The Beguiled is only different in so far as the music is used very sparingly. After the opening humming of Oona Laurence’s Amy, some time passed before I noticed the use of the score and, in most instances, it is diegetic music which is used to add to the building atmosphere, rather than the pop culture jukebox of The Virgin Suicides or Lost in Translation.

Coppola seems destined to forever be judged beside her parentage and accusations of nepotism, and this review will count in that number merely by calling them out. But she is, and has been for quite some time, a singular director of consistently interesting and modern work, who deserves praise on her own terms.

 

TF: It is always debatable whether films which mesmerise the critics at Cannes will prove as equally engrossing upon general release. The Beguiled, branded a “masterpiece” at the festival in May, is indeed a beautiful, cinematic experience which is both slow-burning and highly watchable, proving the best director award for Sophia Coppola is well and truly deserved.

Adapted for the screen by Coppola from the original 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan, The Beguiled is a rare female-centric film which manages to accurately portray a female-gaze without rendering the objectified male lead as one-dimensional – rarely does Hollywood manage this feat, particularly when the gender roles are so often reversed.

Set in Virginia three years into the American Civil War in a grand, former plantation turned school for young women, The Beguiled follows the lives of seven women and girls as they take in a wounded Irish solider fighting for Union ranks. Cpl John McBurney (played empathetically by Colin Farrell) is found dying in the woods by a young Miss Amy (Oona Laurence) who helps him back to the school where he is reluctantly cared for by the principal Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and French teacher Edwina (played by veteran of Coppola films, Kirsten Dunst). While Martha warns the corporal that he is an “unwelcome guest” the younger members of the household, led by a giddy, flirtatious Amelia (Elle Fanning) try to win his attention.

It has been a subject of contention that Coppola’s film excludes the mansion’s slave (a character named Mattie in Cullinan’s novel) however this means any depictions of brutal 19th Century racism for authenticity-sake are avoided. Furthermore, despite the continuous sound of bombing from the far-off battle grounds, The Beguiled cares little for Union versus Confederate lines of the Civil War. McBurney has fled from fighting and, having joined the Yankees as an immigrant seeking money, is indifferent to the politics dividing America.

Instead, the film’s focus is the fascination which both the women and younger girls develop towards the solider. McBurney is a novelty; an object of both curiosity and fear for the female-only household. The voyeurism is similar to the depiction of teen fascination in Coppola’s 1999 adaptation of Jeffery Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides.  A prolonged bathing scene in which Martha cleans an unconscious McBurney with the camera dwelling deliberately on Farrell’s torso and chest is one example of where sexual tension is subtly built without any sex scene actually occurring until the final 20 minutes.

Tense, slow-burning and beautiful, The Beguiled will stand as one of Coppola’s strongest and most disarming cinematic works.

NC: Having only watched two of Coppola’s previous works, Lost in Translation and The Bling Ring, I suppose I was the least knowledgeable about the director before heading to see The Beguiled. But the wit of Lost in Translation alone was enough to get me into my seat over the weekend.

A thrilling tale set in America’s south during the Civil War, the beautifully haunting opening scene perfectly sets up viewers for what is to come as the scene shifts from the joyous adolescent humming to death, destruction and a bleeding Colin Farrell effortlessly, a theme which all in the cinema became very accustomed to over the piece.

Injured after a battle, Farrell is taken in at a school run by Nicola Kidman. Over the coming weeks and months tensions rise, Farrell’s health fluctuates and the underlying sexual frustrations of characters, both women and girls, become increasingly obvious. Inevitably it was a combination of these which heralded trouble in Virginia.

Easy on the eye and with a soundtrack that builds suspense more effectively than the actors at times, The Beguiled is a massively impressive work of art. That being said, and I may be unpopular within our own ranks for saying so, I found the plot progression itself remarkably foreseeable.

But saying that irks me, as this was an intricate and complex film. It may have been that the setting, together with the expectations that I had been developing scene-by-scene, but at no point was I taken off-guard.

This did, though, make for a perfectly well-flowing 94 minutes which highlighted a number of key issues of the time. The role of 19th century women, the reality of war for those not on the front lines and the perception of bravery in wartime are all tackled throughout. Regardless, the dominance of women on screen and their own strength were the stars of The Beguiled. For that alone, I will sing Coppola’s praise.

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