By Jack Dignan
It’s no easy feat making it into the Cannes Film Festival, and it’s certainly not easy to come home with a win. Yet with The Beguiled, director Sofia Coppola did just that. It marks just the second time a woman has won the best director award from the festival, and the first time in fifty years. Coppola has become a powerful voice in the modern day film industry, first paving the way with The Virgin Suicides back in 1999. Each of her films are thematic relatives, but different enough to warrant their own individual existences, and now, she strikes back. And she strikes back hard.
The Beguiled is a title that may ring a bell. It’s not only a famed Civil War-set novel by Thomas Cullinan, but it’s a novel that’s been adapted to film once already. Clint Eastwood starred in the critically acclaimed adaptation back in 1971. Now, Coppola has taken the source material and weaved it into her own interpretation, doing her best to take as little influence from the original film as possible (there’s most noticeably a 15 minute runtime difference). The result is something special. It’s a dark, twisted and to-the-point movie that delves deep into its simple story through a slow, unnerving plot spiced up with a hint of humour and plenty of seduction.
Colin Farrell plays Corporal McBurney. He’s a wounded Union soldier who’s temporarily lost the ability to walk. Dirty, bleeding and forced to hide in the woods, all hope seems lost. That is until young Amy (Oona Laurence), collecting mushrooms for the all-girls boarding school she lives in, stumbles onto the Corporal and agrees to take him in. He’s aided back to health at the school, led by the cunning and uptight Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), where most of the students are away on school break. Being an enemy soldier, nobody knows what to do with him, but they learn to gain to his trust, or, more accurately, mistrust. For when the girls start to take fancy to the charming McBurney, things take a turn for the worse.
Right from the get-go, you’re thrown straight into the action, but all suspense from thereon out moves at a snail’s pace. This is a film all about misperceptions, sexual encounters and endless tension, both romantic and otherwise. Coppola’s tight screenplay allows plenty of time to establish the protagonist’s relations, each played excellently by an enormous, talented cast. Elle Fanning, Kirsten Dunst and Nicole Kidman are all attracted to McBurney in their own way. They sneak into his room, give him longing stares, or, in one instance, internally debate the morals of whether or not to clean his nether region while unconscious. It creates a rivalry, turning McBurney’s unexpected heavenly situation into the pits of hell. A lot of the second act feels like it isn’t heading in any sort of direction, but the build up pays off during the eventual turning point.
Don’t be fooled, however, for as much as it sounds like it, this is far from a romantic movie. It’s a haunting and unnerving period piece that’s got more in common with your typical horror film than it does a rom-com. Confining the film to one location, albeit a big one, adds to the claustrophobia and inability to escape, furthered by the very deliberate and compacting use of a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. McBurney’s leg is injured. He’s in enemy hands. There’s no way out. But he doesn’t really want one, either. A stereotypical male fantasy gets torn to shreds as his sexual desires create uproar and violence in an otherwise very religious household.
Colin Farrell brings vigour and viciousness to a once-peaceful home, and he delivers a powerful, haunting and game changing performance. His character lingers between villain and victim. I found my opinion on him constantly torn, as he goes from complimenting the freshly picked mushrooms to throwing a turtle across the room (yes, that happens) and yelling at the top of his lungs “you vengeful bitches!” The way he plays off the other actors is sublime, always full of sly innuendos, but wouldn’t be nearly as great without the perfectly infectious supporting cast. Everybody in this movie, as few people as there are, give it their absolute all. Nicole Kidman especially is often chilling to watch. She’s able to give the subtlest of expressions and elevate an otherwise lackluster character into something endlessly compelling.
Even while clocking in at just 93 minutes, things do slow down. Your patience is required in order to make it to a finale that’s dark, grizzly and a complete 180 on what came before (in a good way, of course). If you’ve seen the second trailer, you know what’s coming, and it makes the first hour slightly more of a slug than you’d hope for, but for those left unspoiled, sinister events surely await you. The narrative shift is necessary, if not a little too late. We spend so much time in the buildup that the conclusion comes and goes in the blink of an eye. It happens, it’s terrifying, but then it ends. The third act deflates from being the best part of the movie to a weak, quiet ending that’s far more predictable than I would’ve liked.
Still, its Coppola’s directing that brings the whole thing home. The Beguiled, amongst other things, is a wondrous display of fine filmmaking. With six movies and a Netflix special behind her, Coppola shows no signs of decreasing in quality. I want to say she’ll never reach the heights of Lost in Translation, but never say never. Each film of hers continues to deliver, Netflix special notwithstanding, and her craftsmanship as a director is impeccable. The Civil War setting allows for not just big, impressive sets and costumes, but also enchanting camera work hidden under sinister undertones. She places you right into this world, and it’s a world I didn't want to leave.
It’s so easy to toss aside an otherwise great movie as being “good, but not as good as everyone says.” The saying skews your opinion into the film being seen as a disappointment and not worth a watch, and it’s something I’ve fallen victim to numerous times. The simple fact of the matter is that The Beguiled is good, but not as good as everyone says. On the other hand, it is, like I said, still a very good movie, and one that if you check out in cinemas, you definitely won’t regret.
3 1/2 Stars
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