Much like the confines of the recent thriller It Comes At Night, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is set in a claustrophobic atmosphere. It is set during the Civil War, and Coppola’s immaculately detailed period mystery is a treat to watch. I haven’t seen Ms. Coppola’s more recent directorial efforts, but I love Lost In Translation and enjoyed Marie Antoinette quite a bit. Her sense of style is not lost in this film, a remake of the 1971 Don Seigel and Clint Eastwood picture as well an adaptation of a novel, and we are transported into the South in 1864 Virginia. The Beguiled is one of the years best so far.
The movie follows a seminary in 1864 Virginia where Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) runs a very tight ship. At the seminary, there are five girls and Miss Martha’s helper Edwina, played by one of my favorite actresses Kirsten Dunst. While out picking mushrooms, one of the girls, Amy (Oona Laurence) finds a wounded Union soldier. The solider, an Irishman named Corporal John McBurney (Colin Ferrell) is a charming man who convinces Amy to bring him to the seminary so they may treat his leg. There is an immediate sense of sexual tension in the all-female house when Corporal McBurney arrives.
The movie throws the audience into a quick game of cat and mouse. We never really know the characters feelings about one another. Coppola essentially chooses to let the viewer infer what everyone’s feelings are by their facial expressions or lack there of. Colin Ferrell oozes charm as McBurney and begins to win over the girls. In particular, Miss Martha, Edwina and young Alicia (Elle Fanning).
Perhaps the most effected is Edwina. It’s always a pleasure to see Kirsten Dunst show up in a film and I really like the choices she makes in her career. McBurney begins to play to Edwina’s insecurities as she is sort of the outcast at the seminary. Dunst does an amazing job of portraying this with her eyes and body language and her arc becomes increasingly intriguing upon Mr. McBurney’s arrival. To an extent, they both want the same thing. They are outcasts. Edwina, a society girl not used to the heavy Christian seminary Miss Martha is running, and McBurney who is fighting a war that isn’t necessarily his. In part, maybe that is why he lays on the charm so hard, he’s seen what the war can do, and he doesn’t want anything more to do with it.
As the film goes on, Coppola does a masterful job of switching who the beguiled are. Is it the ladies of the seminary? McBurney? The dynamics of the film change so fluidly that by the end we never really know who is in the right, and who oversteps. That is what makes The Beguiled so unique is that the multiple points of view audiences will have aren’t wrong.
Coppola’s masterful directing sets an ominous tone from the start that certainly has moments of levity including an amazing dinner scene. The film is virtually sans a musical score. Instead, the occasional cadence of canyon fire in the nearby fields create an impeccable overtone that adds to the mystery of it all. Moreover, in true Sofia Coppola style, the film has an undeniable sense of time and place. Coppola also does this in films like Marie Antoinette and The Virgin Suicides the latter of which has a distinct late 90’s feel to it. But, from the costumes, to the dialogue and the cinematography, The Beguiled is entrenched in the Civil War era south. The screenplay, which also written by Coppola, very much shows the care she put into the film. It embodies the formalities of english at the time of calling everyone Miss and frequent uses of terms like Ma’am.
The Beguiled twists and turns to a familiar ending, but still nothing is lost in terms of quality along the way. Kidman, Ferrell and Dunst are at their best in this movie. However, the real star is Coppola who establishes the films tone from the get go with a long take of a foggy tree line with nothing but the sound of a girl humming. It’s exquisite attention to detail and brilliant use of its setting make for one of the years best and one of Coppola’s more intriguing entries in diverse body of work. The Beguiled works on every level, and is a film I’m excited to go and revisit.