Review: The Beguiled

Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Written by: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence
Released: July 13, 2017
Grade: B+

The Beguiled
Set in 1864 during the midst of the American Civil War, The Beguiled is shot entirely in one location – a seminary for young ladies located in a rural part of Virginia.  It’s a beautiful white mansion where the girls study during the day and help tend to the household at night.  They are educated about music, language and other important things to help guide them through life.

Business isn’t exactly booming though.  Given the outbreak of the war, which is practically at their doorstep, many of the students have returned home to be with their families.  Just five girls remain and they are only there because they have nowhere else to go.  They are taught each day by the two women who run the seminary – Martha Farnsworth (Kidman) and Edwina Morrow (Dunst).

The monotony of their lives is upended when one of the young girls finds a wounded soldier in the nearby woods.  He identifies himself as Corporal John McBurney (Farrell), a “Yankee” from the Union Army who lives in New York.  Instead of turning him over to the authorities, the strict Miss Farnsworth unexpectedly shows a more compassionate side.  She tends to John’s injuries and agrees to provide him refuge until he is well enough to leave.

John’s arrival completely changes the dynamic within the household.  He’s a “novelty” that everyone is fascinated with.  All the girls want to chat and interact with him.  Miss Farnsworth tries to maintain a sense of decorum but it’s not long because things escalate.  Edwina and Alicia (Fanning) are both taken by his charming demeanour.  It’s hard to work out if he’s seducing them or if it’s the other way around.  

If this story sounds familiar, perhaps you’re familiar with the 1971 release which starred Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page.  Both are based on the 1966 novel written by the late Thomas P. Cullinan.  I won’t reveal too much in terms of plot development but this is a curious character study with a few interesting twists.  There are mind games aplenty here.  Each of the major characters is driven by a particular desire but it’s clear that things won’t work out for everyone.

There are some terrific exchanges between Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell who both deliver strong performances.  John is trying to get beyond Martha’s prickly exterior and understand what makes her tick.  On the flip side, she is using her own methods to establish if he is a “good guy” and is someone worth risking the seminary to protect.  While they battle with words, others take a different approach.  Elle Fanning is terrific as a young woman who isn’t shy in hiding her growing sexual desires.

Written and directed by Oscar winner Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), The Beguiled isn’t centred on one particular character.  Rather, we see things from a number of perspectives and this gives the film a slightly fragmented feel.  We don’t always know what’s going on within the walls of the house at any one point in time.  While focusing on one particular conservation, another of equal significance is going on elsewhere in the house which we’re not privy too.

Coppola etched her name into the history books at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year when she became only the second woman in history to win the best director prize.  While I admire the beauty of the setting and the interaction between the characters, I was hoping for more from the broader narrative.  It’s slow in places and doesn’t offer as strong a “pay off” as some might expect.

You can read my chat with star Angourie Rice by clicking here.