Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Premise: Based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan. In Civil War-era Virginia, the students and staff of a women’s school take in an injured Union soldier (Colin Farrell). The arrival of this mysterious man unleashes sexual tensions and rivalries within the house.
What Works: Sofia Coppola’s directing career has been uneven with better films like Lost in Translation offset by lesser titles such as Somewhere. The Beguiled is one of Coppola’s better movies even while it revisits some of the familiar themes of her work. Sofia Coppola’s films are frequently about young women whose desires are muted or frustrated and her version of The Beguiled has a lot in common with The Virgin Suicides. As in the 1999 film, The Beguiled focuses on a group of women who have been locked away from society and in particular from interaction with men. In this case, a housemother, a teacher, and a handful of young women live a quiet and sheltered life in a secluded girl’s school in Civil War-era Virginia. The stasis of their lives is upset when a student discovers a wounded Union soldier who they take in and nurse back to health. Throughout its first two thirds, The Beguiled dramatizes the interaction among these women and the way that they compete for this man’s attention. This is done with a lot of intelligence and humor and Sofia Coppola has a way of staging the subtle character moments in a way that draws attention to the subtext of the women’s interactions without overdoing it. Much of the credit for the film’s success is shared among the lead actors. The school is led by a stern but practical administrator played by Nicole Kidman. Her performance is carefully calibrated. Being in charge of these young women’s wellbeing in wartime, Kidman’s character is required to be stern but there are also moments of compassion that show through. Kirsten Dunst plays a teacher and the appearance of this man rekindles a hope for a life of love and passion that she’s apparently lost. The film never explains her background but it’s implied that she is considered a compromised woman and has ended up as a teacher out of necessity. The cast also includes Elle Fanning and Oona Laurence as two of the students. Fanning’s character is a young woman who has discovered her own sexuality and she is a very watchable mean-girl type while Laurence plays a young woman who is friendly and altruistic. The soldier is played by Colin Farrell and he is well cast in the part. He’s required to be charming and vulnerable, which Farrell does very well. Circumstances take a violent turn in the story’s third act and Farrell’s performance turns threatening in a way that is intimidating but also heartbreaking. The Beguiled also benefits from a rich sense of place. This is a period piece but the spaces and interactions among the characters feel organic and authentic.
What Doesn’t: The Beguiled remains mostly on the surface of the action. The turn of events and the subtleties of the actors’ performances have implications about womanhood, patriarchy, and sexuality but the characters of The Beguiled are never much more than who they are initially revealed to be. There’s not a lot of depth to them. The film is more concerned with how these women, as types, relate to each other and how the presence of a man upsets the matriarchal order of the household. But the characters are mostly one-note. That’s partly because the filmmakers of The Beguiled seem to expect the viewer to fill in the historical context. For these women, living in the American south in the 1860s, their life prospects hinge upon marrying the right man. The film doesn’t really set up that idea even though it is clearly central to the competition between the women and especially the storyline of Kirsten Dunst’s character.
Bottom Line: The Beguiled is a smart and well-paced drama with a vibrant atmosphere. While it is short on character insight it is rich with subtext that’s played brilliantly in the performances.
Episode: #655 (July 9, 2017)