REVIEW: “The Beguiled”

beguiled poster

There are so many benefits to going into a movie blind. Such was the case for me and Sofia Coppola’s latest film “The Beguiled”, a movie that made her the second (ever) female to win the Best Director award at Cannes. I had no real reference point. I haven’t read Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel. I’ve never seen the 1971 Clint Eastwood movie. I didn’t read a plot synopsis or a single review prior to seeing it. I’m glad for it and I’m sure it fed into the film’s hypnotic effect.

Set in 1864 Alabama and three years into the Civil War, Coppola’s vision for the aptly titled “The Beguiled” is far more focused and contained than expected. The war and its side-effects linger in the background mostly reminding us of its presence through the booming cannon fire in the distance. Instead the entirety of Coppola’s film is restricted to a remote girls school and the drama that unfolds there.

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The film’s Southern Gothic vibe is almost immediately noticeable. Both look and tone convey a subtle sense of isolation and unease. From the very start everything feels a bit off-kilter and Coppola’s management of her tight, tense little world keeps it that way.

The characters drive this deftly conceived drama. Nicole Kidman is the right actress to play the school’s wary and stoic matriarch. Kidman’s portrayal reveals someone firmly dedicated yet clearly drained by her responsibilities. Kirsten Dunst is equally good as the school’s doleful teacher who struggles to maintain a sense of belonging. Elle Fanning plays a young free-spirited Southern belle who is as cunning as she is charming. Each, along with four young girls under their care, go about their melancholy day following their same melancholy routine.

But oh how things change when one of the young girls (wonderfully played by Oona Laurence) stumbles across a wounded Union soldier and helps him back to the school. He’s played by Colin Farrell and his presence in the house immediately causes a stir as each woman is forced to deal with their own pent-up frustrations. As he is slowly nursed back to health the character dynamics between him and each individual woman takes their own sensuously wicked turns.

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Farrell fits his part well – a good-looking charmer aimed at survival. But despite being a key plot piece, he quickly becomes secondary to Coppola’s greater interest – the female perspective. It’s the women who are the most fascinating as they maneuver between empowerment and outright self-destruction. Coppola’s approach, both as writer and director, handles their emotions more through suggestion than laying things bare. And the slow-burning dramatic fuse makes it all the more compelling.

There are several other pivotal ingredients that Coppola utilizes to great effect. There is the haunting minimalist score from the French band Phoenix. Exquisite costume design from Coppola favorite Stacey Battet. And perhaps the biggest find, cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd. Every frame he shoots features some interesting angle or technique. All of these talents join a stellar cast in realizing Coppola’s tense, simmering vision.

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I suppose I should mention the backlash from some who have problems with the film’s avoidance of the slavery issue and subsequent absence of any African-American cast members. There are certainly films where this is a valid gripe. This isn’t one of them. Not every Civil War era movie needs to address the slavery issue especially when the scope of the story being told is so precise. And if Coppola did try and wedge in the slavery issue would it be given the attention it deserves?  Truth is the subtly brewing war inside the walls of the school is far more in focus than the war outside. In fact the isolation of these women is a key point.

Serving as a refuge from the blockbuster-thick summer movie schedule, “The Beguiled” is a refreshing change of pace. Isolation, sexual repression, jealousy, and several other themes are handled with smarts, and Coppola’s understated approach makes it hard to take your eyes off of the film’s steady boil. The slow pace may not work for everyone (there was a moment when I wondered myself), but it never spins its wheels. It keeps moving forward to its fabulous finale which was just icing on the proverbial cake.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

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55 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Beguiled”

  1. Amazing review. I was fortunate to watch Don Siegel’s 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood which is a great film and very dark yet I think Sofia’s version is just a tad better not just in its visuals but also in creating an atmosphere in this sense of isolation and give more to her ensemble as it’s not just Kidman, Farrell, Dunst, and Fanning that go to shine but the other girls in Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, and Emma Howard as they all got something to do. I really want to see it again as this film confirms Sofia’s brilliance as a filmmaker.

    • Thanks so much. I’m anxious to see the 71 version now. To be honest I’m glad I knew nothing going in. I found myself hooked on every word and expression. And the film has really stuck with me.

    • The Siegel’s version from the previews I saw seem to be from the man’s perspective. I think Coppola did a great job with the remake having it be from the women’s. Yeah I do think Coppola does a good job with the telling of this story. I am curious to watch again

  2. Sounds swell. I look forward to a chance to see this soon. What a release, too. I think this is the 3rd review I’ve read about it. I guess you’re right, the blockbuster season just is too much for other quality films to really have a fighting chance.

    • I love a good blockbuster, but getting a break from them is really nice. This film really feels unique and it’ll stick with you well after the first viewing.

  3. It was ok but I didnt love it. It was very pretty but I felt she took away a lot of the tension of the original with some of the choices she made. I think people complain about slavery choice because in the original a slave is a pivitol character who refuses the soldier’s advances and is on to him from day 1. So it’s not just not addressing slavery but it’s eliminating what was once compelling

    • I’ve heard there was a slave character was removed, but I think her storyline would have made this a much different movie. I don’t fault Coppola for telling her own story here. A keen character could shift the focus and I’m not certain this would be the same movie. It’s an interesting discussion.

      • Yeah it is. I just felt like removing her and other character motivations made most of the women the same and the tension wasn’t there. It’s not that she just took tense parts away but she didnt replace it with anything. I don’t get what she was doing here tbh

      • Completely fair points. I am really anxious to see the original for myself. It sounds like a really intriguing movie.

      • It’s not as well made as this but to me it was a true thriller. Will be curious for your thoughts when you see it

      • But I can see why african americans are annoyed at being eliminated from another hollywood blockbuster film in the era of #oscarssowhite

      • For me this just isn’t an example of that. There is a clumsy line that tries to deal with it, but I’m not sure it needed even it. This is a very tight, insulated story. Perhaps Coppola didn’t feel she could do justice by simply slipping in a small side character. I’ve heard some say they believe a statement is being made by the focus on the house grounds’ state of disrepair. They think it is meant to show the absence of the slaves and the helplessness of the white women on their own. Not sure but it’s an interesting idea.

      • That is interesting. I guess for me it is a style over substance film but I can see why some are annoyed at her choices.

    • I have not seen the original so I’m not sure how well the slave character plays into that story. I feel that Sofia removed that particular character because it would add in another subplot that really didn’t need to be in her version. I really don’t think black actors are going to be upset they don’t get to portray yet another slave role.

  4. Great review! I went into it about as blind as you did. I didn’t know there were complaints about the lack of slavery being referenced. It was such a confined story, I never thought of what was going on outside that house.

    • Exactly. I don’t think that is what this particular story is trying to deal with. The criticisms haven’t been widespread though. Hopefully more people are seeing that this film is about something much different.

  5. Great review! I went into it about as blind as you did. I didn’t realize there were complaints about the lack of slaves. It was such a confined story I never once thought of what was going on outside that house.

  6. Nice review Keith. I’m hoping to see this perhaps tonight, but it is interesting you bring up the film’s absence of slavery. It reminds me a bit of Buster Keaton’s The General, where there’s no reference to slavery at all. Yet despite that omission, I’ve never felt that it detracted from The General and the picture certainly isn’t Birth of a Nation.

    • Thank you. That’s a good observation. This one is even more undeserving of criticism in that its focus is so confined. It never goes far outside of the school walls. Hope you can see it soon. I would love to read your take on it.

    • Thanks for the link. Anxious to read.

      Coppola definitely found a fitting one for her. The movie didn’t need to explore the slavery issue. If it had broadened its scope then it would be more expected. But in this case the story is so confined and she maintains that focus throughout.

      • I’m ashamed to say that there are some significant gaps for me when it comes to her movies. It’s something I really need to remedy.

      • Well, you can also say that if you’ve seen one of her movies, you’ll have idea of how others may look like 🙂 I also didn’t watch all of them, but my mature interest for cinema started with Lost In Translation probably. I just love it so much and haven’t seen anything like that. The music is amazing too (lots of dreampop and shoegaze).

  7. Pingback: The Beguiled ’71 vs The Beguiled ’17 – Cindy Bruchman

  8. I read a very good point about the lack of slavery issue in the movie – is that this is Coppola’s movie and she has such a unique perspective when it comes to telling stories of white women, why would people want her to talk of the stories she knows far less about? I see a lot of outrage about that and I’m just puzzled. If she did feature people of color I’m sure people would blame her for somehow not conveying the plight of slaves or something like that

    • I think there is a lot validity to that. Again, maybe it is an instance where she didn’t feel she could do the subject its due justice. On the other hand her story is very focused and confined. It really doesn’t need to get into the issue especially just for the sake of inclusion.

  9. I’m glad you found so much to enjoy in this film vinnieh; I’m afraid it left me cold. Its a beautiful production but moves agonisingly slow with shallow characteristions; for me its a triumph of form over substance. Great review though.

    • Thanks for reading. Yep I had a much different reaction. I was really intrigued by the characters. And you’re right, it moves slow. But I liked it and felt the slow burn fit the story. Anxious to give it a second look.

  10. Hi, I just reviewed this film and was interested in reading what thoughts other people had on it because nobody I know has had the same reaction to it as I did. I really enjoyed reading your review; very well written and structured. I was wondering if at any point you found the film funny? I know of people who found scenes funny because of the nervousness that a film of this ilk should evoke but I haven’t spoken to anyone who found themselves laughing consistently. I actually thought with a few tweaks this could’ve been a great black comedy. Any thoughts?

    • It’s funny you mention that. I never found myself laughing out loud but there absolutely were moments where Subtle moments that resemble black comedy. I think that’s a great observation.

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