Every year there are a handful of films that catch my attention and make me truly intrigued to see the final product. One of those films for 2017 has been “The Beguiled”, a stylish drama film by director Sofia Coppola that won her the Best Director award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival in May. Packed with engaging performances, beautiful cinematography, and a thought provoking story with a great backdrop during the Civil War, “The Beguiled” does not disappoint and is a film worthy of its overwhelming praise.
“The Beguiled” is based on the novel of the same name by Thomas P. Cullinan and is the second such film to be made following a Clint Eastwood-led project in 1971. This new adaptation see Colin Farrell in the lead role as the only male member of the main cast, injured Union Corporal John McBurney, who is taken in by Miss Martha Farnsworth, played by Nicole Kidman, and her school of young girls played by the likes of Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence, Emma Howard, and Addison Rieche with Kirsten Dunst as their educator, Edwina Morrow. While McBurney recovers from a serious leg wound the young girls become curious of their new guest, some wishing to turn him over to the Confederate soldiers while others push for the more Christian approach of helping him heal then sending him on his way. McBurney, fearing being turned away, begins conflicting relationships with Edwina and Elle Fanning’s Alicia, leading to a situation that turns him against the girls as the lines between trust and distrust become blurred.
For a small cast and a simple premise this film makes a lot out of very little, stretching its story to just over an hour and a half without every really getting too dry or boring. Colin Farrell should be commended for his portrayal of a Union soldier with a charming personality who wins over the girls at the school quite easily. That is what “beguiled” means after all, “the charmed”. While the ladies of the film actually outshine Farrell, he still manages to present a sense of insecurity and subtle anxiety that speaks to the eventual mental breakdown McBurney has as the events roll on. Farrell manages to present a man with many layers, some good and some bad, who viewers may question as a good man or one who is just misunderstood.He is also found to be a mercenary, having been hired to join the Union cause rather than doing so willingly, and we see his mental decent begin to shine some light on the fear and regret he has about rejoining a conflict he has no stake in once again.
As I said, the ladies of the film are the ones who truly shine with the team of young actresses, led by experienced leading ladies Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst, each bringing different personalities and emotions to their individual characters. While a few of them inevitably take a backseat to the more major players in the overall story, each one gets a chance to shine on screen and interact with the corporal to different extents. Elle Fanning is particularly impressive and the devious teenage character who develops aggressive sexual feelings for the corporal and acts in stark contrast to Kirsten Dunst’s much older and more delicate Edwina who falls for the corporal on a more emotional level after an admission of love from the soldier catches her by surprise. These are standout roles that help define the central conflict that ends up kicking the climactic scenes into gear. Nicole Kidman also proves she’s still a top notch leading lady as the calming mind in the household, a very forward woman not afraid to put either her students or the corporal in their place and presenting an astounding mix of self control and subtle angst for the corporal herself.
What I really loved about this movie is the pacing. There are quite a few establishing shots that add some artistic quality to the final product, but each shot is beautiful and mesmerizing and while it may not be apparent at that exact moment the significance of that particular piece of imagery, it still doesn’t feel like any frame is wasted, There’s a subtlety about this film that allows the drama and suspense to build to the climactic moments. Nothing is rushed, nothing is taken for granted, and it all comes around to an equally subtle final moment that brings everything to a close in a nice package.
The film also has a touch of symbolic significance hidden beneath the surface, as most great films do. The tale of a group of women in Virginia taking in a Yankee is set against the backdrop of the ongoing Civil War, with distrust and anxiety on both ends of the relationships developed being a continuous theme throughout the film. It starts with the ladies feeling weary of the man and ends with the man feeling weary of the women and despite the despicable personality that the corporal presents, we learn a bit about the women as well that will leave viewers wondering who was the true villain in this story. While it would be easy to label this film as a revenge flick about women getting back as a man with questionable morals, we see these ladies, both young and old, compromising their own beliefs and approaches to the world to cater to a man they barely know. So who is the true monster here? The charming and deceiving man of self interest, or the selfish women who chose to allow him to break through their barriers and then blame him for the result? It’s a fascinating question that is never really answered for sure by the movie’s end.
Restrained, yet pulse pounding at the same time, “The Beguiled” may be a slow story, but it’s an artistic and engaging tale that offers something unique and thought provoking in a time in America’s history where paranoia and distrust were abundant, but we as American’s also worked to embrace each other and show a bit of sympathy. There are many moments where you may ask yourself “what would I do” and that honestly becomes a hard question to answer when you realize just how flawed several of these character turn out to be. It might not be a film for those looking for fast paced, over the top presentation, but “The Beguiled” is a top-notch film that shows that sometimes less really can be more when telling a story packed with drama and anticipation.