The Beguiled (2017)
Out Now On-Demand
A girls boarding school takes in an injured, scheming, Civil War defector in this Cannes Best Director-winning period drama from Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette). All-star cast includes Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning.
This is Coppola's sixth feature, based upon the novel A Painted Devil (previously brought to the screen as The Beguiled, starring Clint Eastwood, in 1971). Story follows a Union soldier (Farrell) during the American Civil War who, while imprisoned in a Confederate girls' boarding school, cons his way into each of the lonely women's hearts, causing them to turn on each other, and eventually, on him.
Winner of Best Director, 2017 Cannes Film Festival
- Sofia Coppola (based on the novel 'A Painted Devil' by Thomas P. Cullinan)
Rating: M Violence, sex scenes & content that may disturb
Sofia Coppola’s Civil War drama sees an injured Union soldier played by Colin Farrell at the mercy of Nicole Kidman and the inhabitants of her boarding school. It’s fertile ground for a modern-minded bodice-ripper, and the psychological dance between Farrell and the various women (and girls), is quietly thrilling.
The Beguiled is Coppola’s most accessible film since Lost in Translation, engaging and dryly funny, with ironic bite courtesy of old-fashioned worldviews. She’ll still linger on aesthetic touches like sunlight streaming through tree branches or water pooling in Farrell’s clavicle, but only when it serves the story.
Farrell and Kidman are as good here as they were in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, playing very different but comparably restrained characters. Farrell in particular is becoming a master at emoting using just his eyes. But it’s Kirsten Dunst who’s the soul of the film, subtly heartbreaking as a woman longing for something she can’t quite articulate. Each student also has a well-realised personality, and when the whole ensemble is together the film is at its best, a comedy of manners with a tragic backdrop.
Coppola keeps turning up the heat on the simmering tension between her leads, and when it boils over the story takes a few jarring turns. It’s loaded with subtext about gender and war, but The Beguiled never feels heavy-handed, thanks to its director’s laconic tendencies. Still, it’s hard not to feel the weight of history as the credits roll.
Los Angeles Times
New York Times
NewsHub.co.nz (Daniel Rutledge)
Stuff.co.nz (James Croot)
Our Toy Soldier
When a wounded Union soldier behind enemy lines ends up in a Confederate girl's boarding school, the staff and students have an intriguing problem in their laps.
The conflict between duty to their own side in the war, mercy for a wounded person and sexual desire drive the women and girls to varying degrees. These conflicts, the existing school hierarchy, politeness and good manners of Southern women, a big old candle lit house, and long dresses mean the film teeters on the border between bodice ripper and sexual farce without coming down on either side.
This is a light romp in long skirts with a frisson of danger, rather than a deep film.
Lovely exterior, but...
Sofia Coppola’s remake of the early 1970s Don Siegel / Clint Eastwood classic looks beautiful, with Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography oozing sensuality in every scene.
Coppola turns up the repressed sexuality to eleven, as the camera lingers on Colin Farrell’s body, or Nicole Kidman’s eyes, Kirsten Dunst's lips, or Elle Fanning's neck.
The gorgeous veneer can’t hide the lack of characterisation, or absence of people of colour in a deep South, Civil War-era setting.
Surprisingly funny at times, this psychosexual drama never transcends its beautiful exterior. Lovely to look at, entertaining and erotic, but disappointingly shallow.
a beguiling exercise in form over substance
When movie’s form and substance are not in harmony the strain can be obvious. With a stellar cast, superb cinematography and magnificent American Gothic period setting, The Beguiled (2017) has uncompromisingly beautiful form. In terms of substance, on the other hand, its characterisation and narrative interpretation are underwhelming.
The storyline is uncomplicated. A wounded Union mercenary Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is found in the woods by a young pupil of a nearby prestigious girls school. She helps him limp to the school where the headmistress Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) agrees out of Christian kindness to provide shelter from the Confederates. The slave servants have fled and the Civil War rages, but the school stays open for a handful of orphaned girls. McBurney knows that his charm and seduction skills are vital to his survival as he smirks privately at having landed in a crinoline paradise compared to the battle outside. The ladies are aflutter at his presence and an atmosphere of repressed sexuality and jealousy simmer below the surface. But he is too clever for his own Irish charm as he tries to worm his way into too many beds. When caught out for his duplicity, the sweet angels of charity exact their revenge.
With a story rich in narrative potential and star-power like Kidman, Farrell and Fanning, you might expect a delicious thriller melodrama with characters of depth, complexity and nuance. But instead we find a flat narrative with two-dimensional caricatures devoid of emotional expression. Apart from McBurney’s angry outburst at having been thwarted by a mere handful of women, nobody in this film seems to feel anything more urgent than how the plates might be arranged for dinner. Piques of jealousy, fear, passion, feminist rage? – none of seems to have made the final cut. Perhaps it’s a Gothic affectation that upper-class Southern ladies enjoy French grammar and music lessons accompanied by exploding cannonballs. Whenever there is hope for an exciting narrative twist, the ladies spontaneously assemble for a posed composition of exquisite elegance and formality as if beckoned by a painter for a portrait sitting. Seeing this the first time is a visual delight; seeing it multiple times displays a level of artifice that distracts from an already slow narrative. Gothic atmosphere is usually full of tension but here it’s more about smoky mists and mood lighting that varies between dark, darker and darkest. What could have been offered as a triumphantly gruesome finale is instead played out as deadpan politeness in a sewing lesson for once rich young white ladies.
Opinions differ widely about this film. Some will have seen the 1971 version or read the source novel, others of course will see it cold. Perhaps it is meant to be a deliberately restrained feminist Gothic noir interpretation. However, despite its high-quality inputs this film is more about form than substance. It has not risen to its potential.