If you want an example of a semi-prolific director incapable of making the same movie twice, look no further than Sofia Coppola (The Bling Ring). This is a woman who knows who she likes to work with, open to any material that inspires her. Such is the case with The Beguiled, an adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1961 novel A Painted Devil, which reunites Coppola with previous collaborators Elle Fanning and Kirsten Dunst. Coppola’s commitment to natural lighting means you can’t see a damn thing for much of the film, but it’s a good one regardless.
1864, three years into the Civil War. While out picking mushrooms, southern student Amy (Oona Laurence, Pete’s Dragon) finds a wounded Yankee soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), and brings him home to her school. Headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman, TV’s Big Little Lies) and teacher Edwina Morrow (Dunst, Hidden Figures) decide to let McBurney recuperate before they send him off to be a prisoner of war. McBurney seems nice enough for a Yankee, but as he starts to make eyes at Martha, Edwina and student Alicia (Fanning, 20th Century Women), tensions begin to run high among the school’s residents.
The look of The Beguiled is the first thing that you’ll notice about it. It’s authentic, which means that no electricity went into lighting it. The prevailing tone of the film is brown and murky, which casts the past as a depressing place which no one would want to visit. Far from romanticising the old south, a dangerous proposition at best, Coppola brutalises it. Large, draughty and unaccommodating, the Farnsworth School offers respite from a bloody war but little else. Seeing proper women brought low is a common theme, but Coppola takes a refreshingly musty and stale approach to it.
The Beguiled hangs on its atmosphere, but as much of that is attributable to the cast as it is to the dreary cinematography and set dressing. The women are a tight unit, completely credible as if they’d lived in reduced circumstances at the school for years, with all of the intimacies and the enmities that would engender. The 37-year age range from eldest to youngest allows for both a family feel and a variety of rivalries.
The women themselves could carry a film without an external influence, but Farrell has been cast perfectly. Using his natural accent, Farrell plays McBurney as a soldier of fortune, not necessarily wedded to Yankee ideals. Farrell has such a charm that there is never any question of how the women become enchanted by him, yet his insincerity is never far beneath the surface. The ambiguity of both the script and the performances can be read however the audience desires, a rare subtlety that deserves to be relished.
The Beguiled is a streak of misery, but it’s something of a joy to watch. Meticulously crafted on every level, Coppola has created a genuine taste of the South in the Civil War, without romance or embellishment. The paradox of artifice and authenticity is that fine line that only some of the best of cinema straddles. To watch The Beguiled is to see a director at the peak of her craft, in full control of her facilities. The Beguiled is its own reward.
The Beguiled opened in Australian cinemas on July 13, 2017.
Directed by: Sophia Coppola.
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence and Colin Farrel.