Nothings says 4th of July weekend quite like a tale from the Civil War. The Beguiled is a tale of lust and vengeance with a surprisingly dark and witty sense of humor. Set at an isolated girls’ school in the Virginia woods, the inhabitants lives are turned upside down as the presence of a wounded enemy soldier sets the house on edge with sexual tension, competition and manipulation. Secluded from the outside world, the ladies of the house must carefully navigate the charming stranger in an increasingly tense battle of wits. An unseen war rages in the periphery as themes of duty, self preservation and sexual appetite grapple for dominance in this uniquely subversive thriller.
Sofia Coppola wrote and directed this new adaptation of the the novel by Thomas Cullinan, separately from the 1971 film version starring Clint Eastwood. Since I’ve never seen the original film I can provide no comparative commentary, but this one focuses on the group dynamic between women like some of her other films (The Bling Ring 2013 and The Virgin Suicides 1999) and adds to the list of her films that begin with the word “The”. Coppola’s narrative style fits nicely into this period piece with all its southern delicacy and formal window dressing. Her version of this story was surprisingly funny. Perhaps it was always humorous or maybe it’s just a sign of the times, but I wasn’t the only one laughing in the theater. Unintentional humor is often my favorite kind, but this was deliberate…even if only as a smirk. She did a wonderful job establishing a hierarchy among the cast and pinning down subtle character traits to each of them.
Firstly, there’s Nicole Kidman playing the elder house mother Miss Martha. Presumably widowed by the war, her fading beauty was almost a forgotten issue until the arrival of a handsome younger sparks a rivalry with the other ladies of the house. Many of her best moments in the film aren’t those of elaborate dialogue, but instances of quiet desperation and stoic strength. Since her breakthrough role in 1989’s Dead Calm, she’s continually established herself as one of Hollywood’s most consistently captivating leading women. Coming off what could be one of her greatest performances for her role in HBO’s Big Little Lies earlier in 2017, Kidman is clearly on top of her game.
To support Kidman, Coppola went to her favorite actress Kirsten Dunst to play Miss Edwina. She has been directed by Coppola several times before in the aforementioned Virgin Suicides and Bling Ring, as well as Marie Antoinette (2006) and it paid off here. Dunst stole the show and squeezed every drop of emotion out of the quietest character in the film. There was so much internal torment on her face, worn more by boredom and isolation more than by time. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like Dunst is finally coming into her own as a screen presence. Despite mainstream movies like the Spider-man trilogy and plenty of unique indie projects, she never quite became the household name people expected after Interview with the Vampire (1994). Even if she never does receive that recognition, I’m much more interested in her next project than I was before.
Stepping into the role of Union Corporal McBurney is Colin Farrell. He has had a strong and steady career but traditionally doesn’t receive much credit for his acting skill. Farrell has never really been the transformative type, but does show more than his fair share of depth within his roles. The latter is true of his performance here. Sure, there’s elements of the charming and rugged Irishman which fit comfortably into his wheelhouse but the character is much more complex than that cursory description. McBurney is an anti-hero if there ever was one. An army deserter and a fine manipulator, meek while injured and menacing once healed. There was a hefty amount of push-and-pull on Farrell’s plate and he handled it very well, with several different actresses. His rapport with Kidman was richly familiar and easily the most complex of the character relationships. I look forward to watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer in November, which the pair finished together before starting this project.
Courtney Bright and Nicole Daniels cast a strong group of young ladies to complement the primary trio. Elle Fanning plays the eldest of the students, ripe with sexual energy and set on having McBurney to herself. Oona Laurence is very endearing as Amy, the young girl who finds the injured corporal. Emma Howard plays Emily who basically winds up in the middle. Addison Reicke plays Marie, the youngest of the girls looking to gain McBurney’s favor. Last but not least there’s Angourie Rice playing the skeptical and quite funny Jane. As absurd as much of her rhetoric is (is meant to be), she is essentially the only real voice of reason in the entire house.
When it comes to executing a period piece, visual context is one of the most important elements. Everything from location to set design must suspend the audience’s disbelief. Anne Ross has served as production designer for Coppola on other films and has a strong grasp for the director’s aesthetic vision. Jennifer Dehghan’s (who also worked with Coppola before) art direction stripped down and simplified the visual communication elements, removing unnecessary distractions. Although I can’t comment as to the accuracy of the costumes, another Coppola stalwart, Stacey Battat did a wonderful job with the wardrobes all while averting near disaster when a washing mishap ruined several of those costumes. Amy Beth Silver rounded all the edges with her set design and put to rest any potential authenticity questions. This production was also very fortunate to have a marvelous palatial estate to film at, the Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville, Louisiana.
This wasn’t quite the film I was expecting. The trailer made it out to be more of a thriller than it ends up being. Those components are present throughout the film, but it’s more about the characters than the outcome. It isn’t a ‘whodunit’ kind of mystery. Instead it’s a very intimate look at the lives and circumstances of these individuals on the edge of the nation’s most destructive war.
Recommendation: This isn’t a war movie in the strictest sense of the word, it’s about what war does to everything else. Give this movie a chance if you enjoy strong performances. The character intricacies have a little something for everyone. Not necessarily recommended for children, but the historical and personal context can serve as a learning experience.