The trailer for The Beguiled predictably, and sadly, spoils the majority of the film’s plot points. Fortunately, this is a story that thrives not so much on its twists and turns but on the exchanges that lead up to them. With a cunning to match its male lead’s philandering, The Beguiled teases its audience into infatuation through dry humour and calculated tension.
The film, which won Sofia Coppola the Best Director award at Cannes, is a remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood flick of the same name, which was in turn based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s A Painted Devil. Despite becoming a cult classic after a flop at the box office, the original is heavily criticised as an Eastwood honey roast in the vein of: Who doesn’t want to bone this gorgeous cowboy? Coppola attempts to return the gender balance to this particular story.
This story follows the consequences of an all-girl’s academy in the confederate south giving a wounded, Unionist soldier shelter during the American Civil war. Colin Farrel’s Corporal McBurneyduly goes about attempting, and generally succeeding, to seduce every woman and girl at the academy. This is a timeless tale and at times hilariously reminiscent of high school films such as Mean Girls.In true fuckboy fashion, McBurney assures every woman that they have a special place in his heart, even going so far as to tell the youngest pupil that she is his “best friend in this place.” Coppola’s characteristically laconic writing wastes none of the humour to be found in both the corporal’s somewhat modern style of romancing and the passive aggressive competition amongst the women. It is a masterful comedian who manages to assure the audience that they shouldn’t be laughing whilst nonetheless leaving them guiltily giggling.
The Beguiled is ultimately a comedy of sexes in a Southern Gothic setting. Director of photography Philippe Le Sourd makes use of static, wide shots to capture the claustrophobically insulated summertime that colours the film. Likewise, the soundtrack, created by composer Laura Karpman and alt-rock band Phoenix, is effectively minimalistic and allows the silence of such an environment to soak in.
Within this atmosphere sits the plantation house wherein Nicole Kidman’s Miss Martha runs her academy. Despite Colin Farrel’s laudable portrayal of an understandably irresistible heartthrob, it is Kidman’s seamless execution of her character’s various roles that draws the eye. These roles encompass, amongst others, a compassionate Christian, a charming widower and a Tiger-Mum-style headmistress. The contradictions and compromises that arise between these duties are conjured in the minutest of mannerisms and expressions, yet they nonetheless amuse and unnerve.
Fellow cast members Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, respectively playing a Plain Jane and a Nubile Man-eater, have fewer opportunities to boast their skills, yet they utilise these to their full potential. Coppola’s direction breathes fresh air into the content of the original film, allowing the female characters to lend the story a wealth of entertainment and understanding that the original lacked.
Despite these accomplishments – like any consummate fuckboy – the film leads its audience in and leaves them wanting. Although the third act is clustered with appropriate twists, the implementation of these shockers is stunted by Coppola’s characteristically slow pacing. In her previous films such as Lost in Translation and Somewhere, this sedate style of exposition fitted the content, yet by the third of act of The Beguiled the audience doesn’t want the growing tension to end in dissolution, but ignition.
I desperately wanted to love this film, not only for its decision to focus fairly on both the male and female characters but also for its effortless humour. There are still moments to be enjoyed, however, many of which I haven’t touched upon for fear of spoilers, yet ultimately the anticlimax left me amongst the jilted.