FOCUS FEATURES (2017)
Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence, Emma Howard, Addison Riecke
“We can show ‘em some real Southern hospitality”
Based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel, The Beguiled entrenches us in the American Civil War. Union soldiers battle Confederates as the war nears its conclusion. Many of the slaves have been set free, though the air is still filled with explosions and gunfire. In Virginia, a girls school remains open with few students and teachers, though that soon changes when an unexpected guest is brought to the house.
A man. A Union soldier. The enemy.
Whilst out picking mushrooms, one of the students, Amy (Laurence), stumbles across the wounded Corporal John McBurney (Farrell) – a deserting mercenary – slumped against a tree. It wouldn’t be the Christian way to let him die alone in the woods, so she helps him to the school. Awaiting them are blunt, feisty school leader Martha Farnsworth (Kidman), teacher Edwina (Dunst), lascivious Alicia (Fanning) and a few younger students – all of whom and bewildered, angry and confused at the arrival of this wounded hunk. Beguiled, you may say.
Martha tends to McBurney’s wounds and ensures his comfort whilst intending to turn him over to Confederate soldiers – however, the girls of the house veto this in favour of having a man in the house. His presence has enraptured them, they all vie for his attention – taking extra effort in their appearances, stealing private moments to chat, even inviting him to dine in their company. He, too, has taken to the girls, his leg is taking that bit longer to heal and his gardening prowess earns him extra respect – however, his shady interests in Martha, Edwina and Alicia begin to cause friction and with jealousy and repressed lust beginning to surface, McBurney is blind to the fact that in his game, he isn’t the hunter, he’s the hunted.
Trim, precise and drifting like a fairytale, The Beguiled belongs to the women of the movie. McBurney is simply the hand that spins the cogs. Living in isolation with only themselves, the movie deals with how each of the women, in their own ways, deal with the arrival of a handsome man into their home. It’s also a nice deviance to see the man being the object of desire, for once.
Everything is intensified within the movie. As McBurney touches the hand of Edwina and his proximity to hers is shortened, her chest almost explodes from panting and she near faints when she leaves the room. As he is asleep from his wounds, Martha delivers a slow, you could say sensuous, wash to McBurney’s chest and thighs. Beads torn from a blouse seemingly crash against the floorboards as they scatter. Later scenes of anguish and panic have a raw emotion to them that clatters through the screen. There’s also good, dry humour throughout as McBurney doesn’t always get things his own way, and the women one-up each other at the dinner table for his attention.
The ensemble cast is great together. Farrell allows his roguish Irish charm to bleed through and give his character extra ambiguity. He’s appealing, and he’s exposed also which the movie plays on well. Nicola Kidman is strong as the spearhead charged with somehow maintaining order, and she performs well alongside Dunst’s more delicate teacher. Elle Fanning is all pouts and glares as she slinks her way through the echoing abode.
The house itself is a sprawling beast, set behind large iron gates and with large gardens trailing behind (it actually belongs to Stifler’s Mom…). Every footstep reverberates through the walls and floor, the sun billows through the large windows casting long shadows throughout, yet the house itself still remains an air of dark mystery with the rays of light. Coppola does away with the need for a true soundtrack, leaving the dialogue to fill our ears and an occasional low synth to add some edge to the visuals.
The first half of the movie is very much a slow burner as it introduces the characters, the setting and begins to explore motivations. At times, it begins to droop slightly as elongated scenes crawl on. However, The Beguiled springs into life in the second half of the movie as machinations become reality and the vulnerable lash out. The movie ramps itself up another notch and the acting also rises with the tension as the noir-ish conclusion begins to take shape, full of Southern Gothic inspirations.
A movie filled with sexual tension, suspense, satirical comedy, eroticism, issues of morality and survival, The Beguiled is an intensely watchable movie, and an extremely well-directed one too. The cast are all fantastic and the looming sense of uncertainty is channelled nicely as the narrative weaves back and forth between McBurney and the belles.
Hell hath no fury like seven women scorned.
September 27th 2017