[NOTE: This is a re-post of our review from the Cannes Film Festival—where Sofia Coppola won Best Director—the film opens in New York/Los Angeles this weekend and expands nationally June 30]
Amy (Oona Laurence) is a young girl walking down a seemingly non-descript Virginia country road. Except it’s not. The Civil War is raging out of sight, but still within earshot. The young girl is seemingly oblivious to the warfare around her as she’s focused on returning home to the girl’s school that is her sanctuary behind Confederate lines. That peaceful facade is broken by John McBurney (Colin Farrell), an injured Union soldier who has been separated from his battalion and is desperate for help. Her compassion over comes her fear of the unknown enemy and she gingerly guides him back to her school where a startled headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), tries to determine what do with their unwanted guest. That’s the initial conceit of The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel. And as beautifully staged these opening moments are, there is a measure of familiarity that has little to do with the 1971 Don Siegel directed film adaptation of the same name.
Few women remain at the school outside of instructor Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) and students Alicia (Elle Fanning), Jane (Angourie Rice), Emily (Emma Howard) and Marie (Addison Riecke). Along with Ms. Farnsworth they have been living together on this isolated property with few visitors for what must feel like an eternity. Ms. Farnsworth quickly tends to John’s wounds as the ladies debate whether they should let him stay or hand him over to the Confederate soldiers still in the vicinity. They decide to let him remain at the school to heal as he simultaneously begins to charm and seduce Edwina, Alicia and Mrs. Farnsworth respectively. When Edwina finds John in Alicia’s bed the tale takes a turn toward the dark side that is surprising and yet somehow not.
It’s ridiculous for anyone to spoil the film’s major twist because Coppola makes it clear the plot is less important than the fact that is their story and not John’s. The most impressive aspect of the new film is actually how Coppola flips the perspective to the female gaze in this respect. Where Siegel’s pulp thriller saw John as a victim of an increasingly competitive and sexually repressed environment Coppola’s version provides a much more balanced perspective. The ladies actions may be drastic, but it’s hard to argue they aren’t justified from their point of view. What is disappointing is that when the material wants to surprise you it simply doesn’t. These are dramatic tropes that have been more exhaustively played out previously than Coppola may have realized.
Kidman, who is on an incredible roll this year, brings unexpected humor to Martha, a woman who has no problem rolling up her sleeves and just doing what has to be done even if its disgustingly grizzly. Dunst gives perhaps the most understated and nuanced performance in the picture as a woman so yearning for companionship she’ll blindly betray her sisters if she has to. Fanning is disappointingly one note as the flirtatious student who can’t stop herself from toying with their guest before he’s even gotten out of bed. Notably, the 14-year-old Laurence brings a practical innocence as Amy the film sorely needs.
Farrell is incredible in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer that debuted at the festival earlier this week, but surprisingly there is little subtlety to his portrayal of perhaps the least sympathetic Yankee on screen this century. Perhaps he couldn’t escape the material’s sensationalistic origins or perhaps Coppola felt creating any sympathy for his character was a detriment. No matter the case you wish you either feared him or felt something for him.
It goes without saying that The Beguiled’s artistic accomplishment that may haunt you more than anything else. The atmosphere Coppola and her cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd create for this drama is absolutely hypnotic. A scene will appear completely illuminated by candlelight as though Vermeer arrived himself to paint it during a previously unknown Southern Gothic phase. Le Sourd finds a way for the grain of the image to capture the weight of a hazy, humid Southern evening hanging from every corner of the screen. The film’s ambiance is so wonderfully rendered and Coppola’s perspective is so distinct it makes it all the more unexpected how slight the end result feels.
Let’s be clear, Coppola is under no obligation to execute anything other than what she set out to do: take a relic of late 60’s storytelling and refashion it from a contemporary female perspective. And in that basic respect, this new incarnation of The Beguiled succeeds. You just wish that after she pared down the original story she’d use her wide-open canvas to paint a bigger picture.