"The Beguiled is commendable on the basis of its gauzy aesthetics and its commitment to performances and pacing."
by Steve Pulaski
Sofia Coppola's films sometimes leave you satisfied, but ultimately wanting the potential of her work realized like you know it can be. It's in this way that The Beguiled is more along the lines of the modestly effective Marie Antoinette as opposed to Lost in Translation or The Bling Ring, both among the director's best works.
Make no mistake, The Beguiled is consistently strong, right down to its pacing, which always feels precise, and foggy atmosphere, even when the film takes place in doors. Yet its lack of thematic convictions catch up to it during its climax, for it's then you realize you've been spoonfed a fairly unambiguous film that has often masqueraded as something with more depth and complexities than it is. It's all very pretty, however.
Set in Virginia with the backdrop being the now waning Civil War, we're immersed inside a boarding school for Confederate girls, led by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and aided by fellow student Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). They are in charge of teaching the students - teenage Alicia (Elle Fanning), along with youths Jane (Angourie Rice), Amy (Oona Laurence), and Emily (Emma Howard) - cursive, Confederate literature, and history all within the confines of mannered principles and borderline obsessive neatness.
Their simple lives become evermore complicated when Jane wanders deep in the woods one day and finds an injured Yankee corporal by the name of John McBurney (Colin Farrell). John is close to blacking out, with a badly injured leg that needs various stitching to combat rapid blood-loss. Jane encourages Miss Martha to take John back home, where he is fed but given anything but cordial reception. Miss Martha cares for John with the attitude and intensity of an underpaid nanny to bratty children, affirming every chance she get that her invitation to him is a begrudging one.
Overtime, John's presence begins to effect some of the girls in different ways, being that they've largely been confined to socializing and learning amongst one another instead of in larger, more diverse groups of people. It's this and their lack of male interaction that prompts such instances of innocuous eye-locking between John and Alicia, or even John and Edwina in a few other scenes. The girls don't become catty with one another as much as decidedly passive-aggressive. A casual desert turns humbly hostile when John remarks about how much he loves the family's apple pie. "I made it," Alicia claims. "Didn't you use my recipe?," Edwina questions. "I picked the apples," another girl says. "Apples are my favorite too," another spouts.
It's when the girls' cordiality towards John turns a bit more explicitly personal that things begin to unravel and motivations become mixed enough to encourage defense. Consider Trey Edward Shults' misunderstood It Comes at Night, which just came out a few weeks back. There was a very simple film with a communicable premise of a family surviving off the land amidst a horrible outbreak of disease before coming in contact with another family with similar motives. Because of deeply ingrained American values, on top of just general feelings of unease and desperation, the question of "who can you trust?" comes into play and feeds into a great deal of paranoia and impulse.
The Beguiled is not far removed from It Comes at Night, to the point where Coppola's direction and editor Sarah Flack's pacing feels on par with the novel-esque domestic thriller. It makes up for the jump-scares and horror atmosphere, however, by way of creating its own sensual and physical rhythm. Actress-placement and ambience seems to be at the top of Coppola's list of things to capture in this film, with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (The Grandfather) favoring a pink, translucent hue that makes for a tone that's almost blissful. Even during candlelit dinners and in bedrooms with dim illumination, The Beguiled feels both intense and calm at the same time.
Coppola positions this intriguing duality by, of course, dabbling into sensuality, a recurring topic of her work. Unfortunately, this is where The Beguiled begins to falter, as it doesn't capitalize on Alicia and Edwina's repressed desires and guilt when it could. It does a lot of ambient hinting at such through too many shots that set the scene against Phoenix's score, sometimes letting the audience's mind wander or become distracted by pedantic detail for far too long. Themes of sensuality, paranoia, and even Confederate ideology seem greatly undermined, and this is a big problem considering Coppola omitted the integral slave-character Hallie from the original 1971 film, which would've given the film at least a grade more depth than it has now.
The performances are by-and-large pretty strong, given they rely on the interpretive abilities of the actress' rather than their ability to portray painstakingly detailed archetypes. Kidman and Dunst are bound to be highly praised, as they should be, for there are desperately few scenes in the film where Kidman's Miss Martha doesn't feel in control, but I was more taken by the strengths of Fanning. Fanning brings a conviction to Alicia I haven't seen in a while; the kind where you believe her character can assert dominance simply with a glare and that's someone Fanning was born to play. Even Farrell, who I have always found to be an underrated actor, carries the physical and mental weight of his character in a slowburn fashion that suits him very well in certain scenes in the third act.
The Beguiled is commendable on the basis of its gauzy aesthetics and its commitment to performances and pacing. It has that capability I desire in films to transport and to arrest, and quite frequently it does on the basis of what it so artfully conveys by doing so little. But I express concern for those who feel this film, in its current state, is richer than what surface-level ideas can be subscribed to it and its premise. Like Coppola often does - and what her brother Roman often does worse - she gets hung up on details that make the best moments in her films resemble postcards to the point where trying to remember the scene's dialog is almost impossible. Far too often does this happen in a film with a premise that was born to be dissected and analyzed for a long time.
Steve's Grade: B-