by Philip Price
When it comes to Sofia Coppola I tend to be indifferent; both towards viewing her films and, when I do see them, in my response to them. Granted, I need to re-visit many of her works that were released and that I saw when I was likely too young to comprehend what they were aiming for or even discussing, but even as I've grown, expanded my pool of cinematic knowledge, and have been very much excited to see her newer releases a la “The Bling Ring” (which, admittedly, is likely her worst effort) I was disappointed by the lack of any real vision, any signature voice in her films. That changes with “The Beguiled.” “The Beguiled” has made me more anxious to go back and experience “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation” again while prompting me to finally try to see “Marie Antoinette” and “Somewhere.” “The Beguiled” is a game-changer of sorts because it brings Coppola onto a plane where she is not only indulging in the type of cinema she finds comfort in creating, but because it simultaneously provides a large entertainment factor. It's deliciously enjoyable in a way that feels fresh to this work specifically. Though I haven't the authority to compare Coppola's features with one another for, as I've mentioned, some I haven't seen at all and others I haven't seen in quite some time, but by a general gut feeling “The Beguiled” feels like the kind of jump-start Coppola's career needed to once again find inspiration. Everything about the film creates a sense of restraint around what is a boiling pot of truths and temptations just waiting to be acted upon. Coppola creates this potboiler effect by capturing the musky air of 1864 in visuals that elicit the season's soft southern sunlight and the lack of any bulbs whatsoever. Candlelight provides most of our illumination here and it is the glow, the aura of these yellow-tinged flames that underscore that air of courtesy that is all too often rendered just that by the bluntness with which our characters interact with one another. A gorgeous interpretation of the way in which people can read others based on their circumstance and furthermore, a fascinating study on the ways in which you sometimes can't-the true motivations of one or several never revealing themselves leaving any action taken to be forever contemplated. A million ideas about currently relevant social issues could make their way into one's interpretation of “The Beguiled,” but the truth of the matter is that it is very simply a smoldering tale of intuition and war.
Set in Virginia during the Civil War we are introduced to Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) who runs a school of sorts for young girls along with a fellow teacher, Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst). They have seemingly been left to their own devices since the beginnings of the war as any man who was once in any of these women and young girl's lives has either gone off to war or died during it. And so, it is easily understood why such a commotion is made when one of Martha and Edwina's young students, Amy (Oona Laurence), stumbles upon a wounded Union soldier while out picking mushrooms for dinner. Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) lies against a tree, deep in the woods, outside the school where it is evident the soldier has been badly hurt. Doing what is undoubtedly the most Christian thing to do in her mind Amy helps McBurney onto his feet and back to the school house where his arrival and ultimate presence is a subject of much discussion, debate, and distraction. Given they reside in a Confederate state and are loyal supporters of the Southern cause (there was a slave character in Thomas Cullinan's original novel and Don Siegel's 1971 film that has been cut here) Miss Martha is largely conflicted by the situation that has been presented to her establishment while Edwina seemingly rejoices in the fact something has come to break the monotony of her day to day if not rescue her from this place in which she has been forced down into the conforming package Miss Martha requires. The younger girls come to form a fascination with the charming McBurney, especially Amy, who continues to help nurse him back to health after being his initial savior. Other students such as Jane (Angourie Rice) and Marie (Addison Riecke) either object to even the thought of a Union soldier in their presence or bring him prayer books so that he may return to health and depart as quickly as possible. It is the oldest of the students, Alicia (Elle Fanning), who brings about the unseemliest of thoughts though. Per Coppola's adaptation of the screenplay and interpretation of the visual film Farrell's McBurney is never revealed to us as either a helpless victim or a typically aggressive male who sees himself as the superior sex. Coppola never truly allows her film into the psyche of her sole male character (though it makes us think it does) and Farrell's performance keeps us on our toes until the credits roll as to whether he's an upstanding guy who gets seduced as any man might or if he's simply gunning to have control over these women and keep company with as many as will have him. We can't discern any games he might be playing, but what develops out of his presence is nothing short of sport.
The perception of McBurney and the position it takes in the film is maybe the most fascinating aspect of how Coppola tackles the subject matter. Aside from the obvious ideas and implications that deal with the large cast of women coming to the realization of their own talents and potentials is that of how McBurney assesses each of his new-found companions. That such dynamics shine through means the film does an exquisite job of defining the different types of relationships McBurney develops with each of the women, but more it speaks to the larger, more curious arc of how society views the female in general. Take, for instance, the initial meeting between Amy and the Corporal as she serves the role of savior and him that of a man fallen from grace who has fled his masculine duty of fighting and dying honorably in battle. Amy is a beacon of purity, of sweetness, and of untinged thought. Though her society tells her McBurney is the enemy she can't help but to assist the defeated individual she sees laying battered under a tree. This forever solidifies who Amy will be in McBurney's eyes and because of this it communicates how we generally see young girls who have yet to cross puberty; perceived not as sexual objects or a conquest to scale, but as a physical form of innocence and decency. This perception McBurney inherently takes after meeting and being rescued by Amy is expected and by all accounts appropriate and would hardly be something to take note of did Coppola not make how McBurney perceives Miss Martha and Miss Dabney to be as startlingly different yet completely in line with expectation despite the fact Martha and Edwina serve the same savior role as Amy if not to an even greater extent. Rather than McBurney reading the older women of the house to possess the same earnestness and good intent as their young student they are almost immediately pegged as objectified goals: Martha as the stringent and direct headmaster who needs to be let loose and Edwina as the weak and impulsive prisoner who might be preyed upon easiest. This idea that the moment a female comes to possess any type of sexuality at all is also the moment her perception in the mind of any man then shifts from that of her character to that of how much he might accomplish with her is one that would seem to be rather apparent, but there is something to the way Coppola documents the contrast in judgment here that speaks volumes to any male viewer, especially those that might have a young daughter themselves. Of course, Coppola really emphasizes this stark shift by throwing Fanning's Alicia in the mix as a curious temptation for McBurney he's not quite sure he can resist, but the point is “The Beguiled” isn't shy about showing its characters or its audience things they might not like to admit about themselves.
With that type of understanding it would then be very easy to peg “The Beguiled” as a film with a wholly feminist agenda that is meant to make men feel bad for thinking of women in any other way than in terms of how much of a gift they are to the male race and why we should constantly be thankful for them, but in truly sublime fashion Coppola reminds us we're not all that different-men and women-and that instead we're all only as blunt as we need to be in our given set of circumstances. It just so happens that, as the story of “The Beguiled” goes, Miss Martha and her school of impressionable young women, find it necessary to do anything but take the instruction of a man as they would typically be expected to in that day and age. That said, the film doesn't go the most obvious route as one might have expected given what the spoilery trailers purported the film to be and while this may be seen by some as not being as bold as it could have potentially been the terror of the situation is more psychological for it. The movie hinges on how well the scenes work between McBurney and each of the individual women as he attempts to decipher the best way to befriend them if not potentially become more to each. It is the seduction sequences that make or break the effectiveness of what “The Beguiled” is trying to make a statement around and they are executed rather magnificently, especially based on Farrell's sly performance. Photographing the actor in ways that make him seem almost ethereal we understand why the women feel a need to take care of McBurney, but it is more than this as Farrell deduces and then intellectually pounces on the unsuspecting women to not take things too far, but nudge them in the direction that makes them question what they want to do and what they should do. On the other side of things, the women of Coppola's picture are equally terrific in their performances. Kidman's face is a story unto itself as much of what is floating around in her head plays across her eyes and forehead to up the ante on the fact that while Miss Martha is indeed very direct in her dialogue there is still very much that is only implied in that directness. As the oppressed Edwina, Dunst strikes a keen balance of insecurity and rebellion that is more about herself getting over her own fears than anything else. Fanning has some fantastic moments as well despite the fact her character feels the most compacted. Speaking to compact, the film comes in at a short 90-minutes as the first hour flies by leaving the shift in action to be something of an abrupt one, but it comes because both the movie and McBurney are running out of time. With a final scene that is pure, raw tension and an atmosphere devoid of a traditional score, but instead filled with the sounds of cicadas, birds and other natural southern signatures “The Beguiled” is a moody, lurking melodrama with a lush, but dim aesthetic that is hauntingly beautiful in the same way its protagonists are.