As the gates close at Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, Sofia Coppola shuts off the outside world for a small, but entertaining, feminist tale, The Beguiled.
Three years into the Civl War, a Virginian schoolgirl, Amy (Oona Lawrence), stumbles upon a wounded Yankee soldier, Colonel John McBurney (Colin Farrell), in the surrounding woodland. She helps him hobble to the house, where matriarch Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) cleans him up and stitches his severe leg wound. As John builds up his strength, the young women quickly take an interest in him, and he obliges, encourages even, as he charms and sweet talks his way into all of their lives. However, tensions soon grow, as John gets back on his feet and begins to test the women’s hospitality.
Coppola has described The Beguiled as her first genre film. It’s not all that pronounced, but it does feel like part of the Southern Gothic tradition, with the misty swamps and old houses. The film also draws on domestic horror by highlighting the dining table as a place of tension. It’s a “genre” that arguably went out of fashion a long while ago, but this definitely plays first and foremost like an updated version of a classical film.
Coppola writes truthful and varied female characters of various ages. She also toys with the lone male character very pleasingly. Once John is feeling up to the task, he offers to help work on the garden. Coppola has him chopping wood, clean-shaven and posing for the camera. She facilitates the audience to rescue the man, enjoy his good looks, blush at his charm and then revel in his ultimate punishment.
At one point, Amy blurts out: “You keep talking about him as if he’s not right here in the room.” This acts as a knowing nod towards Coppola’s reversal of sexist conventions, with the male character having to suffer through objectification and two-dimensionality for once. It’s an entertaining balance Coppola pulls off, and she really makes this film her own, despite the fact that the source novel has already been adapted by Don Siegel in the 1970s with Clint Eastwood.
Coppola keeps the scale contained. Beyond a few excursions, the action is kept within the grounds of the house, once the gates close for that first time. It becomes, fascinatingly, both the characters’ fortress and their prison. Fortunately, the production design is quite strong, which keeps this limited space visually exciting, as does the costume work.
Throughout, Coppola maintains a gently simmering undercurrent of black humor, and costume changes make for some of the funniest moments, as the girls dress to impress. The cast steps up to the mark gamely. Kidman is excellent as the head of the house trying to maintain control over her charges, whilst also giving in to the thrill herself on occasion.
Kirsten Dunst’s Edwina and numerous talented young actresses assist her. Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice and particularly Lawrence give strong performances, and Addison Riecke offers humorous support. The one weak link — and this is definitely a fault of the script, not the performer — is the fifth student, Emily. The character serves absolutely no purpose in the script, and it stands out as the one flabby element in an otherwise taut film. As their foil, Farrell assumes his given role wholeheartedly and he can lay on the charm whilst also injecting it with sleaze.
It’s a beautiful film to look at, as Coppola apes the candlelit artistry of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon for the interiors and 12 Years a Slave‘s Southern glow for the exteriors. There’s a soft tactility to the image, captured exquisitely in 1.66:1 aspect ratio (35mm celluloid), which brings out the sumptuous colors in a lovely haze. It’s painterly and a real treat for the eyes.
Coppola often returns to shots of the wooded canopy over the surrounding country, subtly reinforcing the fact that The Beguiled won’t be leaving this small area, which simultaneously renders it a microcosm of society. It’s the female characters’ world, and it’s one the audience shares for 90 minutes. The only outsiders, apart from John, are patrolling Confederate soldiers who pass by on occasion. However, Martha is the only one to deal with them, and the camera is kept at arm’s reach, primarily with the girls as they watch the exchange through the window.
Over the course of its slim running time, The Beguiled plays out exactly as one might expect and never really stretches beyond its contained premise. That being said, Coppola makes full use of the scenario in terms of feminist commentary and critique, and the film looks genuinely stunning.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.