Film Review – The Beguiled
The frame, darkened around the edges, gives way to natural light towards the center. Nature and life creeps into view. Light stays in the center while darkness bleeds out, taking away almost any resemblance of an edge to framing of the shot. This becomes an almost singular visual motif that permeates throughout Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled. Set against the backdrop of the Civil War but taking place almost entirely inside an isolated location, Coppola takes the source material of Thomas Cullinan’s novel and Don Seigel’s 1971 film adaptation and uses this visual technique as a means of communicating an emotional connection to the characters in relation to their world.
Nestled in the forests of Virginia, an all girl’s school sits off a little-used, dusty road. Run by headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and assisted by teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), they see to the private education of a small group of girls. Their lives are interrupted when their world becomes inhabited by an injured soldier attempting to escape the war. When the critically injured Union soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) happens upon the young Amy (Oona Laurence), a student from the nearby school, in the woods, he begs her to help save him. Amy is apprehensive but gives in to his plea for help and brings him to the school.
McBurney’s presence immediately causes a disruption in the school, and Miss Martha, while apprehensive herself, is inclined to assist in attending to his immediate injuries. Mixed emotions run through the large house turned school. Alicia (Elle Fanning) takes an immediate dislike to his being a Union soldier in their Confederate world. Other girls like Amy and Edwina take a near immediate like. Miss Martha decides he’ll stay until he’s healed but his unsure what to do with him after that. Laid up and kept in a room by himself, McBurney’s healing becomes a daily part of the school’s routine as the girls individually sneak into say hi. McBurney for his part lays on what he thinks is a subtle charm, slowly attempting to win the hearts of each of them, especially Edwina.
However, McBurney’s charms are a means of survival and when a situation creating jealousy arises, his physical condition takes a turn for the worse, unleashing a predator that perhaps has always been lying in wait. In Seigel’s adaptation his aim was from the male perspective of telling a story about “the basic desire of women to castrate men.” Those were reportedly Seigel’s own words and his movie goes on to represent them, even if it makes some poignant statements positively in favor of feminism along the way. Here Coppola clearly seeks to flip that narrative and instead creates a story around a group of women beset and besieged by the male narrative itself. Pushed to a point where “castration” is a response for survival.
Shot in a less than standard aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and filmed on 35mm using natural light, coupled with the aforementioned visual presentation, makes for the film’s most outright statement as evidence for its repositioned perspective. Coppola, along with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd and production designer Anne Ross, create a mise en scène that does more to push the themes and narrative than most scenes of dialogue. Being a Coppola film, there is a lack of urgency to the action and consequently the acting paired with dialogue becomes more of a way to spend time with characters than a means to further a plot. The moments are the story, the action is what we’re eventually left with when all these moments build to a crescendo.
Kidman is her usual amazing self, reserved and yet seemingly a moment away from inhibition. Her scenes with Farrell, whose presence here seems particularly apt, are a sparing tête–à–tête of tension and flirtation. Dunst is even more reserved as the repressed Edwina and her acting here shows why she should be cast in more things. Farrell fits into his role as McBurney as perfectly as he fits into his period piece clothes. Charming, cunning and untrustworthy, he’s sexy yet sleazy. The cast all complement each other and make at times an unexpectedly funny combination.
While not necessarily a movie full of surprises, one of the most surprising, or unexpected, aspects here is the level of humor that’s infused with the gothic imagery and somber tone. Coppola’s film strips out most of Seigel’s cattiness and in-fighting that occurs among the women when McBurney’s sexual prowess becomes involved. She instead infuses humor and nuance in interactions of jealousy and eventual violence. The result is a more emotionally complete experience than what Seigel provided. It is also a movie more concerned with empathy towards and among the women. Visually dense and emotive, yet delicate and sparse.
However, Coppola does remove an integral element of both Seigel’s film and Cullinan’s novel involving the school’s ownership of a slave named Hallie, played by blues singer Mae Mercer. Hallie’s presence in contrast to McBurney’s predicament and being a Union soldier provided for Seigel’s film a commentary on civil rights in the early 70s. Here, Coppola removes the condition and conversation of slavery from the movie all together. Unfortunate, and troubling that the character of Hallie is removed as even Seigel showed, a brief moment between two characters can express so much. Despite the shortcomings it does have, Coppola has crafted a thoroughly engaging film that ultimately is as poignant as it is artistic.