What an unfortunate soul, this Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), hobbling out of the battlefield and into a setting with even more hurt. Nothing about Farnsworth Seminary would ring mental alarm bells – Confederate soldiers rarely pass by, smoke comes out of the fireplace rather than cannons, liquor is abundant and seven genteel ladies who can provide care – but undisturbed Venus flytraps rarely do. “You’re a most unwelcome visitor, and we do not propose to entertain you,” says the headmistress, Martha (a deliciously no-nonsense Nicole Kidman), to a recuperating John, her bluntness is also a veiled warning that consequences shall befall the inhabitant who lets their conduct loose, length of stay be damned.
“…Sofia Coppola’s control over the framing, the wording and the timing is nothing short of hypnotic.”
And from The Beguiled’’s marketing, including a rather detailed trailer and one #VengefulBitches hashtag, John seems to be the only one who did just that. Pro tip: don’t bet like most people on which body part gets chopped. Déjà vu abounds, more so to those who have read Thomas P. Cullinan’s A Painted Devil or watched the 1971 adaptation starring Clint Eastwood, but there remains a willingness to stay entranced given how director Sofia Coppola’s control over the framing, the wording and the timing is nothing short of hypnotic.
Much like how Amy (Oona Laurence), the seminary’s youngest and the first to encounter John, enjoys taking her time hunting for mushrooms, progression in The Beguiled caps at strolling. Its world always seems to border standstill, a total contrast to that in Marie Antoinette where there is a rush to the next sugary tableau and in tow is a bombastic tune from another era. Not that Coppola will let Amy do two laps in the woods before getting an injured soldier to aid, but the dallying fuses a cruel-but-crucial trait into the footage: disarming viewers. With occasionally amusing dialogue (delivered straight-faced and with aplomb by the performers, no less), static camerawork and most of the “scoring” done by nature or distant gunfire, there is no reason to clench.
“Farrell balances that line between stifled hysterics and effortful bravado…”
Starting out eased is a compelling way to have outsiders – John and the viewers – curious about the ladies, of what they are in the eyes of each other and, over time, of the masculine stranger. While the sounds of artillery drown the fields outside, a few souls are wailing indoors, muffling their isolation-induced frustrations through the Lord’s teachings and etiquette. Amy, while amicable, doesn’t see an actual companion in the other girls. Martha, despite apparent withdrawals from John, subconsciously yearns for a man’s touch (which intensifies after cleaning up John’s wounds). Alicia (Elle Fanning), the boldest of the belles, sees “the Yankee” as cause for a “release.” The riskiest case belongs to Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who wants John to release the seminary’s hold on her for good. In that sense, Dunst’s character here is the Southern version of France’s last queen, with those same impactful and mournful stares blazing with turmoil.
With an inherent roguish charm, Farrell effortlessly convinces that John is a man of his word. He might have been truly one, if not for those brilliant fleeting moments where the underrated thespian lets slip of his character’s selfish motives. And when it is time to reassert dominance, Farrell balances that line between stifled hysterics and effortful bravado, which makes the point where The Beguiled switches its style all the more impactful.
“It is the final moments, though, that Coppola’s direction reaches its finest pitch.”
But whether it is prior, during or after that pivotal moment, Coppola exerts only care to the imagery. There is a tangible unison between what is going on to how d.o.p. Philippe Le Sourd is framing it and a possessed soundtrack cued at the 11th hour. Look at where each miss is standing at a group musical performance – their position also doubles who is truly on John’s mind. Notice the first time a tracking shot is used when Edwina discovers a horrible betrayal after checking on another girl’s bedroom – the change in style kick starts when everything is going to pot.
It is the final moments, though, that Coppola’s direction reaches its finest pitch. Everything, narrative and style-wise, returns to how it was before, but the atmosphere and characters are unable to. The 94-minute metamorphosis, though, offers a most satisfying movie-going experience – even if the satisfaction requires one man going through purgatory.
The Beguiled (2017) Directed and Written by: Sofia Coppola. Based on the novel by: Thomas Cullinan. Starring: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Colin Farrell, Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard.
8.5 out of 10