Jacob Richardson | 11/07/2017
Sofia Coppola's tense, aching civil-war drama is an incredible but plodding feature.
Colin Farrel’s wounded union soldier, Corporal McBurney, stumbles across a girls’ school in Virginia during the Civil War. The seven female occupants are at odds with each other over what to do with the man; the very embodiment of the enemy who has stripped them of their loved ones for so long. They decide to let him stay, as Nicole Kidman’s Miss Martha attend to his injured leg, but before long the sexual tension, oppressive heat and constant threat of war explode, throwing their uneasy peace into disarray.
The Beguiled is not what it looks like on the cover. It’s intense, and slow-burning; not quite a romance, not quite a thriller, not quite a revenge drama. What it is, is full of superb acting. Kidman, Elle Fanning and Kirsten Dunst in particular give indelible performances with a pathos that conveys character in the merest of glances. Their perpetually white-shrouded frames float with strikingly juxtaposed grace through the ruins of their former lives. Farrel’s journey from love to hate is also compelling, and he delivers it with his now standard skill. It’s easy to believe the tale of temptation when actors of this calibre are delivering such performances. Nevertheless, it is Kidman who truly shines the brightest. A final dinner scene seals a certain character’s fate, but also seals Kidman as the MVP of Coppola’s latest, as the camera pans up from a plate of mushrooms to focus on a twisted smirk on Miss Martha’s face.
Coppola paces the film so languidly one can almost feel the Virginian heat. Superbly shot by cinematographer Phillippe Le Sourd, the weeping trees and curiously dilapidated white mansion, coupled with achingly beautiful sunsets, invites you into the movie in such a compellingly obtuse way that it’s easy to stay engaged throughout. Whether it’s Corporal McBurney chopping wood, Fanning’s Alicia giggling in a garden, or Dunst’s Edwina teaching French to the younger girls, the film builds interest while also conveying the utter isolation of this group from the world around it. Edwina’s longing for a life “anywhere but here”, or the occasional line of dialogue about the progress of the war is all that we get to hear or know about what is raging on the other side of that field. To these women, and their unwelcome guest, life is self-contained; a hot, sticky, and boring life that these young girls feel, increasingly, like breaking out of.
Perhaps this is where the real issues with The Beguiled arise. Much like the occupants of this Virginian mansion, we too want to break free of this story, because nothing really happens. Plot developments seem slower to develop than the weeds that creep across Miss Martha’s backyard. Coppola builds a successfully tense feeling of isolation, but is then constrained in terms of story by such an emotional play. These girls are alone, and while this heightens the feeling of danger towards the end of the film, it also makes the first two acts drag interminably.
Thankfully, then, the final act makes up for it. After an unfortunate incident that changes the dynamic of the house, a brilliantly hatched plan makes for an incredibly compelling, utterly immersive third act sequence that will have you on the edge of your seat.
If you’re used to explosions and rapid-firing plot, you’ll be disappointed by The Beguiled, but if you’re a lover of great acting, tremendous cinematography and third act tension building, you’ll probably love Coppola's latest.