The Beguiled (2017) (Review)

Sofia Coppola's remake of The Beguiled has been granted a feminist twist: the original Clint Eastwood-starring picture was told through the eyes of the lone male in a female boarding school, as was the case in Thomas P. Cullinan's 1966 novel, titled A Painted Devil, from which both films are adapted. Coppola, writer and director, has decided to focus on the females populating the school and how the presence of a mysterious male in their safe haven drives them to desperation and blind lust. The Beguiled debuted at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and was selected for participation in the Palme d'Or, providing Coppola with a win for Best Director, becoming only the second female winner in the award's history.

In 1864, as the Civil War rages on, a young student from a leading girls school in Virginia discovers a badly-injured corporal from the Union Army on the forest's edge, who deserted the battlefield on account of his wounds. Amy brings the man, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), to the school for nursing, leading to a disruption of their cultivated harmony. Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to the Corporal's wound, as the likes of Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) and Alicia (Elle Fanning) begin to fall to his charm. As his stay with them is prolonged, lust and love get in the way and the atmosphere quickly turns deadly.

The Beguiled cultivates an intense atmosphere that is maintained from the first frame until the very last. Immediately, a searing tone is asserted that remains unrelenting throughout, making the audience feel edgy and wary throughout the period piece. As Amy hums on her morning walk as the title screens are ushered in and the camera creeps around the forest, the uncomfortable atmosphere we become accustomed to is first provoked, revealing a film that is continually flirting with genres; as someone who knew very, very little about the film (trailers had been avoided and the original had gone unseen), it works and being unsure what to expect works for a film like this. In one moment a historical drama, in the next a romance tale; one second it feel like a horror-thriller, the next it becomes a black comedy or erotic, provocative thriller. It takes talented hands to make every genre feel successfully tackled and handled, and The Beguiled is more than up for the challenge.

Rock band Phoenix provide the film's score: somewhat hauntingly, the soundtrack only really surfaces to highlight a tonal shift - like during an important moment signalling the beginning of the final act - but remains quietly, thoughtfully powerful and present throughout. Every now and then, the music will register on the slightly louder side and continue to inject that uneasy notion the film masters. Otherwise, the majority of the sound comes from the everyday; singing birds and crickets, creaky floorboards and the distant gunfire, signifying the Civil War that rages on, very much in the background of the film.

Coppola's refreshing new take on the film puts the women at the forefront - and what a group of women she selects to lead the remake. Nicole Kidman helms the group, playing the schools' mistress in a cool and collected manner; as expected, the Hollywood favourite balances the meatiness of the dramatic role with an uncomfortable darkness, coalescing into an unexpected humour, that shapes some of the film's suitably awkward moments. Kirsten Dunst, often overlooked by the masses, delivers arguably the most considered performance of the bunch, illustrating the displacement Edwina experiences as the group's outsider. And Elle Fanning, after her career-kickstarting turn in The Neon Demon, relishes in the role as the provocative Alicia, with a knowing wink and nudge in seducing Mr. McBurney at any given opportunity, matched with a fragility in response to her lack of experience and understanding. Each a powerhouse with a commanding performance, the trio deliver some of the best performances of the year.

Colin Farrell takes on the deceptive John McBurney with a confidence and mystery, crafting an enigma that keeps the audience speculating over his intentions at any given moment. In thanks to my own limited understanding of the story, it plays a fantastic guessing game to which ladies room will be entered and whether he is as helpless as initially implied. The younger ensemble are really solid too and while rarely given the chance to match the command of their more established counterparts, are bound to make ripples in Hollywood in the next handful of years.

Coppola, with her Best Director accolade to boot the film's worldwide release, does a splendid job at moving the picture along at a brisk pace (a slick 94 minutes, to be exact). Visually, it is a compelling affair, complete with wonderful sets and costumes. It utilises predominantly natural lighting to secure an appropriate period setting, accentuated by Philippe Le Sourd's cinematography. Coppola is very confident behind the camera, playing with angles and shots to further emphasise that restless and unpredictable atmosphere. Working in the tight environment also gives an opportunity to explore the claustrophobia, not only of the physical landscape but of women during the times and one that war generally prescribes - something similarly achieved in Dunkirk. With Sofia Coppola steering the ship, it succeeds based on her directorial skill and talent.

With so many elements of The Beguiled impressing, why does it leave you feeling a little bit, well, empty? The script's dialogue and language is suitable and clever, with a potent exploration of themes and dynamics, but it never quite achieves the depth that could elevate it considerably. With the tension building constantly, you await a satisfying culmination that never truly arrives; it builds and dips at a frustrating pace and leaves you pondering rather than fulfilled. Maybe its careful musings are appreciated by some, but the general consensus appears to be that the lack of depth and reward is a disservice to an otherwise solid period drama.

Where the blame lies for The Beguiled's issues is difficult to say. Maybe it is Coppola's soft touch and approach, or perhaps it is down to the fundamental idea to remake something and straying so far from the original material. Or, very possible, I'm missing the point of it entirely. Either way, it is furstrating that, even with so many boxes ticked (cast, direction and premise are all fantastic, as well as the art department who revive the era gone by), it leaves you feeling somewhat distant.


SummarySofia Coppola's The Beguiled is a solid and entertaining period piece, helmed by a fantastic director and performed by a stunning cast - but it cannot help but underwhelm by failing to connect on a deeper, more profound level.