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.
The 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.
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.
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