MOVIE REVIEW: The Beguiled



The transitive verb “beguile,” as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means “to engage the interest of” or “lead by deception.”  Hoodwink and divert are synonyms.  Previously filmed as a Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood collaboration in 1971, director Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled means to charm our corsets and britches off right in line with its title’s root definition.  Methodically and dastardly, the film wishes to seduce us with a heightened intrigue of challenged sexual repression.

A foreboding crane shot from director of photography Philippe Le Sourd (The Grandmaster) descends beneath the thick deciduous canopy to introduce 1864 Virginia amidst the distant booms of cannon fire.  Behind the ever-present symphony of southern sounds comprised of the natural noises teeming outside house walls, the language of dignified pleasantries permeates inside the Farnsworth Seminary.  The maven of this boarding school is Martha, played by Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman.  Ms. Farnsworth is a resolute woman on the matters of proper conduct towards her assistant Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and the five young ladies and students in her charge 

Teenagers Alicia (Elle Fanning), Jane (Angourie Rice from The Nice Guys), and Amy (Oona Laurence of Pete’s Dragon and Bad Moms) and the youngest girls of Emily and Marie (Emma Howard and Addison Riecke, both in their feature debuts) follow the controlling and restrictive tutelage and rules of the household.  When Amy is gathering food in the nearby woods, she comes upon a wounded Union soldier named John McBurney (the top-billed Colin Farrell), fresh off the boat from Dublin, who has removed himself from the battlefield for self-preservation.  The girl helps him back to the seminary where Martha tends to his wounds and confines him to one room as if he were a potential prisoner to report.   

The presence of a mysterious man in the house, especially one with Farrell’s soon-to-be clean shaven smolder and kindly accent, sends the coven into a tizzy, inciting feelings ranging from distrust and curiosity to full hot-and-bothered, all of which must be quelled by Martha.  Eager to impress, the ladies, and even the young girls, implicitly throw themselves at John through innuendo-filled lines, longing gazes, and thinly-veiled acts of southern hospitality.  Soon, the pent-up passions and caged heat lead to competing affections and twisted intentions that spell doom for all involved.

Coppola wrote her own lean adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s source novel and temptingly twists the screws of the mounting agitation that cracks this soldier into madness and turns good girls into, as the razor-sharp trailer will tell you, vengeful bitches.  Sofia Coppola became the second woman to ever win the Best Director prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and she deserved every golden ounce of the award.  Not a hem of this film is out of place, save for a few too many repetitive establishing shots of people with spyglasses peering into misty forestry.  Her shrewd calculations have honed an effective 94-minute stew of breathy immersion.  Le Sourd’s cinematography supports the lingering edits, deft costumes, and rapturous production design from three Coppola confidantes, Sarah Flack, Stacey Battat, and Anne Ross respectively, to impose an esoteric atmosphere upon us.  

Despite all of the production value and tightly focused direction, too much of Coppola’s film is unchallenging in several departments.  Without question, each of the performances are saturated with commitment.  However, no actor is really stepping out from their type the way Clint Eastwood did in Don Siegel’s 1971 film.  Kidman and Farrell, in particular, have played courtly switching to spiteful before, and Elle Fanning overacts her juvenile sultriness every chance she gets, creating some cringingly unintentional laughter.  Of the small ensemble, Dunst’s Edwina impresses with the most compressed emotion in the film’s unraveling narrative. 

Coppola’s The Beguiled fashions itself as a simmering thriller, but the most damning portion of missing stimulus is the perceived tension.  True peril is lacking at every turn, even as the film climbs to its zenith.  The charm never reaches a boiling point.  The musical score from the French rock band Phoenix is too scant to help.   A film with this kind of refined atmosphere should be dropping jaws and raising eyebrows.  What transpires isn’t twisted enough to reverberate one’s soul or vacillate one’s moral fiber.  This is the wrong kind of weakness. 

LESSON #1: THE HELL WITH THE CHRISTIAN THING TO DO-- It’s a hoot to watch a house full of women have their principles buckled by the mere presence of temptation.  They speak of the right things of what their teachings have told them to do, yet bad choices are made everywhere.  Exercise that willpower. 

LESSON #2: WATCH OUT WHEN A WOMAN DRESSES UP-- When a woman drops that neckline, digs out the fancier jewelry, and picks out the special occasion dresses from the back of the closet, they are either feeling especially confident, want to be noticed, or both.  Few things puts you in the crosshairs of either come-hither or vengeance more than when a woman goes all out on appearances for you or against you.  Be ready and watch out.  

LESSON #3: MIND YOUR PRODUCE-- Homegrown, organic, and farm-to-table food sources are great and all, but still make it a point to know what and where your groceries are from.  They may not be all they are cracked up to be.  Be careful of who and what you put your trust in when it comes to sustenance.