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First Look Review - THE BEGUILED

the beguiled movie review
During the US Civil War, a Union soldier is sheltered by a group of Southern women.







Review by John Bennett

Directed by: Sofia Coppola

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Elle Fanning, Kirsten Dunst

the beguiled uk poster

Sofia Coppola has had an interesting career. In her relatively small body of work, it seems she’s worked in the mode of Amy Heckerling and Michelangelo Antonioni in equal measure. Though the quality of her output is uneven, she can always be counted on to surprise. And with The Beguiled, her remake of the 1971 Don Siegel-directed Clint Eastwood vehicle, Coppola surprises again in the best possible way. With The Beguiled, Coppola has delivered a totally unique piece of Southern gothic - a film that will make you laugh as hard as it will make you cringe, as you marvel at its visual beauty all the while.

While picking mushrooms in the woods, a young girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), stumbles upon a wounded Union soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell). His wound isn’t serious - more serious is the fact that he’s in the enemy state of Mississippi during the American Civil War and has no means of getting back to the union forces. Amy rushes back to her small boarding school with news of her discovery. On the decision of the boarding school’s prim matron, Martha (Nicole Kidman), the soldier is brought to the boarding school to recover before being handed over to the Confederate authorities. Nevertheless, the handsome soldier begins to attract the attention and curiosity of the ladies, including the flirtatious Alicia (Elle Fanning) and the melancholy Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). As an object of fascination in that stuffy environment, McBurney becomes an increasingly welcomed guest. But after he has a nasty and suspicious accident on the school’s steep staircase - an accident that necessitates the amputation of his leg - The Beguiled takes a bloodier turn as the ladies attraction grows to something more complex and perverse…

the beguiled

If you go into The Beguiled expecting a horror or suspense film, you may be disappointed. Coppola’s film, more than anything, is a macabre comedy. Coppola and her cast bring a sort of Lubitsch touch to The Beguiled. As McBurney charms each of the ladies in different ways, the ladies comments, actions, and glances barely mask their coquettish interest in their visitor. After the wounded McBurney has been settled into his makeshift hospital, Martha sets clear rules both for the wounded union soldier and for the girls regarding how long McBurney can stay and how he and the girls may interact with him. There’s a delight in seeing how quickly those rules are broken, even by Martha herself in the presence of an attractive stranger. Funnier still are the little betrayals the women start committing in order to draw sometimes-chaste-sometimes-not attention to themselves; The Beguiled’s most giddy moments occur when earrings are pilfered from a jewelry box or an apple pie recipe is plagiarised. The sexuality in The Beguiled is not trenchant or something to be philosophised about. Instead, the film’s sexual tension is - like in the best Lubitsch - naughtily and breezily funny, conveyed clearly and elliptically.

The second half of the film admittedly takes a dark turn, but there’s still delightful humour to be found even in the midst of that half’s grisliness. What’s more, the humour in the grim second half reveals The Beguiled to be a thoughtful commentary on the ills that can arise from repression and neuroticism. When McBurney angrily calls the women “vengeful bitches” for amputating his leg, we get the sense that that is more symptomatic of his male vanity than of the ladies' desire for revenge. Instead, the violence that these respectable women are capable of arises from their need to keep a situation manageable, to atone for their attraction that they let stray beyond the strictures of the reprehensible moral code of the American South during the Civil War - moral standards that are so impossible to meet that they will inevitably be transgressed. The Beguiled goes about this idea intelligently, and always with an imperceptible grim smile on its thin lips.

the beguiled

Much of the reason that The Beguiled is a breath of fresh air can be attributed to the fact that it has the economy of a classical Hollywood film. In its brisk 94 minute running time, no single scene seems extraneous or meandering. It seems to have become the norm these days for quality films to wander and explore their thematic territory; Coppola herself has used this kind of narrative in Lost in Translation (2003) and especially in Somewhere (2010). It’s certainly a good thing that contemporary art films are such open texts, but what makes The Beguiled so refreshing is its straightforward structure, allowing each scene to push and complicate its streamlined plot a little further with the regularity of clockwork. In a beautiful scene, Martha offers a late-night brandy to McBurney, and the two chat in the luminous salon that serves as his ward. In this moment, and others like it, Coppola gradually, naturally shows how McBurney becomes a welcomed presence in the home. After the turning point of the amputation, another scene in which the women hold a sinister council in which they decide how to rid themselves of the irate amputee pushes the narrative to its next unsettling conclusion. This steady, thoughtful pacing always ensures that watching The Beguiled is an engaging experience from beginning to end.

Working with cinematographer Philippe le Sourd, Coppola gives The Beguiled a ravishing look. During daytime scenes, pale sunlight can barely penetrate the wooden 19th century mansion’s dust. For the nighttime scenes, candelabras give the tastefully decorated salons an ethereal glow, a glow that seems to emanate just as ethereally from the pastel silk dresses the women wear. It’s a musty, luminous look that enhances The Beguiled’s unsettling atmosphere just as much as it lends a very droll sangfroid to the film’s sense of humour.

the beguiled

Coppola’s exceptional actresses paint a neat, novelistic portrait of each character. Fanning is as good as ever as the young tart, more confident and direct in deploying her feminine charm, less encumbered with neuroticism than the other women. Kidman expertly portrays a woman whose Southern moral code treats McBurney as an enemy and whose same moral code can’t help but treat him with increasingly courtly hospitality. But the best of all may be Dunst; as the long-suffering Edwina, she manages to unobtrusively stand as an embodiment of the film’s central commentary on the desire to overcome repression without quite being able to understand how. As McBurney, Farrell may not be quite as deft as The Beguiled’s actresses, but he serviceably portrays his character as simultaneously rakish and hapless.

Though there is so much to love about The Beguiled, a couple of small faults prevent it from being a perfect film. Laura Karpman’s score seems completely out of place. Coppola wisely avoids using much music at all; the ideas behind each scene are so ripe with subtext that she doesn’t need music to tease that subtext out. However, in the rare instance that Karpman’s score is superfluously used, its modernist humming seems distractingly out-of-keeping with Coppola’s old-school set up. What’s more, some of McBurney’s angry tirades in the second half seem a touch on-the-nose. But in the larger context of this wonderful film, these flaws are miniscule enough to ultimately be ignored. If you have a sense of humour, a taste for atmosphere, and a predisposition for thoughtful, entertaining filmmaking, you should find The Beguiled totally beguiling.

The Beguiled is in UK/ROI cinemas July 14th.



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