The latest offering from the Coppola dynasty is, on paper, a substantial departure for the hipper-than-life Sofia, but on screen is more or less the same as her previous six films.
The Beguiled, a remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood picture, interestingly finds closer affinity to Coppola’s first feature The Virgin Suicides above any others, and not just in the repeated casting of longtime favourite Kirsten Dunst, playing a far more restrained character than seen before. It’s an intricately designed examination of the fundamental differences between male and female company, and the toxic behaviours that either can create. Having explored intense female friendships between suburban kids, French royals, and Californian brats, Coppola has decided to fashion together her own take on the effect of the absence of men on the feminine psyche.
“The presence of a potent male in this exclusively feminine environment has sends a shock wave to the institution’s core.”
It’s 1863 at the height of the Civil War, and deep in southern Virginia an affluent girls’ school, led by the brazen Miss Martha (a commanding Nicole Kidman), is unexpectedly forced to take in a wounded enemy soldier, Corporal McBurney (a genuinely impressive turn from Colin Farrell). Soon enough, the presence of a potent male in this exclusively feminine environment has sent a shock wave to the institution’s core, and stirred many an emotion in not only the young girls but also in the teachers; particularly, the timid Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who is soon utterly seduced by the soldier’s foreignness and tales of the bloody war seen and heard by the domesticated women only in distant glimpses.
A current of distinctively mysterious female sexuality runs through Coppola’s film, whether it be in the delicate innocence of 11-year-old Amy (Oona Laurence) or the teenage promiscuity of Alicia, the eldest student, played by a startlingly mature and intelligent Elle Fanning, seemingly channelling Dunst’s own promiscuous teenage performance in Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. Coppola’s eye and ear for subtle comedic moments comes through strongest in the film’s more elaborate stages. There is a fantastic set-piece where, having invited the Corporal to dinner for the first time, the girls expensively dress themselves and coolly compete with one another for their guest’s attention. Kidman’s delivery of the line “Would you care for a digestive, corporal?” is a particular highlight in what is really a terrifically coordinated sequence.
“A sparse score does well to inflate the film’s almost sustained gothic eeriness.”
Like every Coppola film that came before (and, most likely, every film that will follow), The Beguiled is visually breathtaking in every frame. Present are the typical and indulgent Coppola cinematic trademarks, including many moments of aesthetically pleasing young girls looking wistful and yet, frankly bored at the hauntingly gorgeous scenery, but these can easily be overlooked by the efforts of a uniformly hardworking and convincing cast. A sparse score does well to inflate the film’s almost sustained gothic eeriness, but results in far too many moments crying out for something more to happen. Coppola drags and drags and drags and then, unexpectedly, a chandelier crashes to the ground, without any huge level of suspense built.
The whitewashing controversy that has surrounded the release of this film is worrying though, especially for how Coppola has chosen to justify her decisions in excluding original black characters from her prettier perspective. However, for what it has to offer, The Beguiled is certainly watchable in all its wretched, bloody, and feminine glory.