Period Thriller, ‘The Beguiled’ Takes a Bite of Subtle Mastery
It’s quite rare to witness any sort of cynicism muted when there’s a remake on the table. But there’s clearly an appreciation for remaking a classic when done with care and in capable hands. A noteworthy recent example would be The Coen Bros.’ True Grit, etching its own name from the 1969 John Wayne classic. With the Southern Gothic drama, The Beguiled, director Sofia Coppola very well could have duplicated a similar effect.
Like the 1971 Don Siegel film of the same name starring Clint Eastwood, Coppola’s iteration of The Beguiled is set deep in the Civil War. Instead of Mississippi, Colin Farrell’s Corporal John McBurney finds himself in enemy territory outside of a secluded Virginia seminary strictly for young girls. One of the girls finds McBurney near death propped against the side of a tree. Fueled by her faith-based teachings, she brings the soldier back to the school. The icy headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) is reluctant to extending her hospitable hand, but warms up to the idea.
In its 90 minute run time, The Beguiled grabs its audience tightly with a strong sense of isolation. While the constant battle between the North and South is on their doorstep, Martha and her handful of students keep to themselves. Coppola even skirts around the slavery aspect of the Civil War, leaving just the small group of females as the film’s centerpiece. With previous features such as The Virgin Suicides and The Bling Ring under her belt, we expect this from Coppola. And Kidman’s facility is self-sufficient without the need for a man around her parts. That is, until McBurney’s unexpected presence is felt.
The Beguiled isn’t channeling a bold in-your-face vibe. Almost 90 minutes of subtlety is executed to pure perfection, where no one in the ensemble is tempted to overacts. Kidman, Kirsten Dunst (the sole teacher) and Elle Fanning (one of the senior students) each bring their A-game with their powerful nonverbal expressions. While Coppola’s screenplay is on-point throughout, it’s complemented by a fantastic ensemble that brings the best in one another. Throughout the film, there’s this unsettling vibe that something just isn’t right, but it’s not the dialogue beating you over the head with the obvious. The several dinner scenes elicit the greatest tension. By the way, apple pie might just be the devil’s dessert after this film.
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Despite the prim and proper Southern exterior, there’s this undercurrent of sensual and sexualized tension toyed with throughout. McBurney is the center of attention, tended to by his female hosts. However, flirting with one while the other one’s in pure voyeur mode pushes the pressure cooker beyond its point. Betrayal, jealousy and wholesome values are in an eternal power struggle. One minute, Kidman and her charges are in prayer discussing good Christian values. Momentarily, the concept is thrown out the window. Though Coppola’s screenplay doesn’t tackle the amount of depth or investment on the surface.
While The Beguiled plays to same beats as its 1971 counterpart, Coppola deviates in a few welcoming areas. As talented as Colin Farrell is, his Corporal McBurney is surely not some carbon copy of Clint Eastwood. Does he have to be? Not at all. In fact, Farrell subdues the character’s macho nature, yet working the victim and user duality. He finds himself smitten with Dunst, while concurrently fueled to find an out of the overall situation.
Without seeing the layers underneath the surface, you’d swear Coppola is concocting a slow-burn melodrama. Make no mistake, even clocking in at 90 minutes, The Beguiled unravels its sinister undercurrent one turn at a time. However, it’s the patience of the audience that makes for a vengefully delicious climax. The brooding candle-lit cinematography by Phillippe Le Sourd (Seven Pounds, The Grandmaster) that owns a fine portion of the film is a transfixing blanket, which separates it from the original.
The Beguiled is Sofia Coppola at her very best since Lost in Translation. It’s a four-course thriller not to be missed, methodically maneuvering through its ample passive-aggressive threads. As a director and writer for female-driven films, she does examine a slew of different character aspects, even if external character development is minimalized. And yes, The Beguiled treats Kidman and company as “vengeful bitches.” However, the film is oozing with such rich ambiguity that the audience is left with an enthralling exercise of perspective.