Directed by Sofia Coppola
On general release from 14th July 2017
Reviewed by Nick Daly
The Beguiled begins softly, fading into a serene misty woodland and immediately placing the viewer into the subdued, soothing hands of Sofia Coppola. We watch as a young Victorian girl picks mushrooms for her basket, until she’s startled to discover wounded and fleeing war solider John McBurney (Colin Farrell).
Stumbling with him to the supposed safety of the all-female boarding school she’s residing, the audience are introduced to headmistress Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), her underling Miss Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) and four younger schoolgirls (one of whom Elle Fanning) who together wearily carry the collapsed man inside their remote mansion.
The gradual shift in dynamic of the household is fascinating to watch for any viewer remotely interested in human behaviour; the women dressing prettier as their jealousy among one another becomes pettier. “He seems to be a sensitive person”, Miss Morrow adds to the discussion of John at the dinner table, “does he?” Miss Farnsworth replies suggestively, their interactions licked with comic undertones.
It’s exquisitely developed, never losing its subtlety but always retaining its captivation as each character plays off one another beautifully; John spurring each of the females, rising the tensions gently within the mansion until the inevitable but nonetheless gripping turn of the narrative showcases Coppola at her most tense and dramatic.
There’s instances that verge into melodrama, but the film’s slight satirical edge combined with the whimsical attributes associated with its Southern Gothic nature allow it.
As expected from Coppola, the aesthetics are sublime; the persistent shot of sun streaming through a willow tree perfectly encapsulate the notion of a hot summer in the Mississippi South, while the dark and dank mansion interiors replicate the dull, stifled lives of the women and prove exactly why this ‘most welcome visitor’ is so desired.
The shot of Miss Farnsworth, frightened by John later in the film and guarding her schoolchildren amongst a huge fallen, shattered chandelier is a beautifully dramatic image that could be hung up in galleries.
It could be suggested that Coppola continually remakes her own films; much of her filmography has a theme of fame but all have a focus on women, and The Beguiled is Coppola’s most female-led film since her 1999 debut, The Virgin Suicides; an impossibly accomplished film for a first-time director. It only took her second film, Lost in Translation (2003), to cement her position as one of the great modern directors.
Like the sisters of The Virgin Suicides, the Beguiled females are restless and repressed, given spurts of life by their brief glimpse into the world outside; the surrounding civil war isolating them much like the troubled parents did their daughters in The Virgin Suicides. The intriguing difference is that while the Virgin girls were the desired, by the infatuated teenage boys across the street, The Beguiled females are the desirers, of this ‘most unwelcome visitor’.
If you were to naturally compare the two, another difference would be that the Virgin girls are ultimately the more compelling; the viewer learns equally as little about each group of females, but told from the perspective of the boys and their tantalisingly brief encounters with the sisters, this lack of knowledge added to the enigmatic nature of The Virgin Suicides, whereas with The Beguiled and it’s more conventional storytelling methods there seems to be a longing for added development.
In both, however, Kirsten Dunst continues to be an alluring presence; her characters from the two films garnering most of the audience’s sympathy. As Lux, her sultry girlishness combined with her tragic fate was an intoxicating mix that was the focal point of The Virgin Suicides. Eighteen years later, the character of Miss Morrow is slightly less engaging but nonetheless the most sorrowful of the Beguiled women, and as was recently enlightened in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), Dunst is marvellously adept at depicting depression. When John asks Miss Morrow what she wants ‘more than anything’, she replies, “to be taken far away from here,” and you can feel the ache in every syllable of her voice, and see it in each one of her eyes.
Alongside her it’s impossible to ignore Nicole Kidman, perfectly cast the stoic matriarch with concealed passions, and continuing her successful career resurgence after Lion and Big Little Lies of showcasing what a truly great actress she is. Meanwhile, Colin Farrell, playing John with his true Irish accent and a rugged charm, has the tongue-in-cheek effect of an actual Colin Farrell swaggering onto a period piece and causing a ruckus, but ultimately, he too proves what a great acting talent he is as the film’s most dramatic character.
It could be speculated that The Beguiled is a marriage of The Virgin Suicides and Coppola’s previous period-set film, Marie Antoinette, but the fact is the two historical films are so tonally dissimilar; Marie Antoinette displaying Coppola at her most vibrant and playful, while The Beguiled and its muted moodiness resides at the opposite end of the spectrum. It does, however, demonstrate Coppola’s skills of adaptability, how she responds and moulds herself around her chosen material, not allowing the material to mould around her. This level of consideration shouldn’t be surprising, however, for a director renowned for such a sensitive touch.
At the film’s resolution, Coppola is disarmingly brief, neglecting to give substantial closure on the women and instead opting for a more minimal resolution, consequently losing the little depth the film had garnered.
The extended closing shot behind the school’s foreboding iron gates, complete with Coppola’s trademark ambient soundtrack, begs for a more meaningful response from the viewer, but without possessing the weightiness of The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, a familiar hollowness that permeated throughout Coppola’s last three features (Marie Antoinette, Somewhere and The Bling Ring) regrettably begins to surface in her most recent; these specific elements ultimately preventing The Beguiled from achieving the brilliance Coppola achieved so early in her filmography.
There’s so few filmmakers, however, with such an attentive gaze on females, and the human condition in general, that even if not at her peak, there remains a distinct specialness to Sofia Coppola films that means they’re welcomed every time.