Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’ is a Ravishing Southern Drama

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The Beguiled

The collaborations between director Don Siegel and star Clint Eastwood yielded a lot of classics, but they were macho classics of Eastwood’s rugged individualism and Siegel’s journeyman direction. When they collaborated in 1971 on an adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel The Beguiled, they provided a masculine examination of a wounded Union soldier seeking refuge in a women’s school in the Deep South during the Civil War. 46 years later, The Beguiled returns to the screen but the story is presented though a different lens with director Sofia Coppola bringing her own sensibilities without greatly altering the story. The Beguiled is a gorgeous, well-acted film that improves upon the 1971 version, though it does have one aspect that is unconscionably uninspired.

Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) has been wounded in the leg and has been hiding out in the woods when he’s discovered by Amy (Oona Laurence), a young girl who is a student and resident at the all girls’ school in an expansive Southern estate. Despite the fact that he’s fighting for the Union, Amy helps the wounded man back to the school, where his wounds are tended to the school’s headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman). As he slowly recovers, John charms his way through the harsh suspicion that his uniform brings to the Southern women. He sweet talks Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) when alone with her, as he does with Alicia (Elle Fanning), Martha, and the other younger women when in private. The uneasy alliance begins to crumble when the young women begin a bit of in-fighting and John’s flirtatious ways only exacerbates the situation.

Sofia Coppola’s screenplay for The Beguiled doesn’t stray too far from the 1971 version, but the slight alterations lead to a much tighter film. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Coppola is able to inject a sharp sense of humor to some of the catty in-fighting that takes place, such as one moment where the women engage in a moment of one-upmanship over apple pie in order to impress their male guest.

The direction that Coppola brings to The Beguiled is a very quiet classical style of filmmaking. Camera movement is sparse. The frames within the candle-lit interiors are static with well-timed edits amplifying the dramatic tension that slowly builds. Everything in the film is simply gorgeous with the 35mm cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd giving the movie a look that brings new life to the wonderful production design and dimly lit interiors. Combined with very little music, there’s an austerity to the style that constructs a growing sense of unease as the film moves towards its climax.

Another improvement upon the prior adaptation of The Beguiled is the impressive cast that Sofia Coppola has assembled. Colin Farrell is much more charismatic than Clint Eastwood, and the Irish actor brings that perfect balance of alluring flirtation and dangerous menace that just makes the drama of the film work. Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst are their reliable selves, each delivering strong work. Elle Fanning continues her meteoric rise with what is probably the most complex performance in the film, one that mixes a jealous infatuation with youthful angst. Even the younger members of the cast deliver standout work, including Oona Laurence and The Nice Guys breakout Angourie Rice.

And yet for everything that just works, there’s just something that sticks out like a sore thumb about The Beguiled, and that’s the film’s entire unwillingness to acknowledge slavery as a factor in the Civil War. The shadow the war looms over everything that happens in the film. Cannons are heard in the distance throughout and yet the cause of the war isn’t even given a mention. I know there’s already been a bit of debate as to this aspect of The Beguiled with some saying that it’s good that Coppola is “staying in her lane,” but to simply not acknowledge it seems like dire misstep.

One major misstep aside, The Beguiled is a ravishing drama that truly improves upon the original because of Sofia Coppola’s different worldview than the macho work of Don Siegel. The film has a fascinating style in every aspect and there’s not a bad performance in the movie. The Beguiled builds and builds upon itself and never loses the audience’s attention because there’s always something captivating on the screen.

The Beguiled
  • Overall Score
3.5

Summary

A gorgeous, well-acted drama with an austere directorial style, The Beguiled is a strong movie by writer-director Sofia Coppola even it makes one major misstep along the way.

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