Editor Chloe Woods reviews Sofia Coppola’s latest.
1864. Three years into the American Civil War, the remnants of a young ladies’ school in Virginia – five pupils, one teacher and the headmistress – find an injured northern soldier and decide to care for him until he’s well enough to survive as a prisoner-of-war. What follows in this gorgeous, stripped-down remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film by the same name is a taut exploration of femininity and flirtation, of competition and alliance between women, the well-earned distrust of men and the ways outsiders can unbalance isolated (particularly female) lives. In other words, The Beguiled is very much a Sofia Coppola film: and among those, one to remember.
The Beguiled sets out to explore a very particular place. It’s clear from the beginning that we are entering a different world, and what kind of world it is. The opening scenes, draped in mist, show an archway of trees which serves to suggest isolation from everything beyond: the rumbling echoes of gunshots do not interfere with the child picking mushrooms. The action of the film takes place entirely within the house and grounds; dialogue hints that the characters are aware of and in contact with the outside world, but apart from brief visits by two sets of Confederate soldiers we see no signs of this. Within this already constrained space, the film is sharply divided into the interior and exterior spaces of the school. The former are crisp and clean – consisting of sewing and French lessons, a music room, and smart clothes: the starch white blouses worn by Nicole Kidman’s “Miss” Martha, the headmistress, stand out. Meanwhile the exterior is in decay – the garden strewn with fallen branches – and much as these upper-class young women attempt to maintain their pristine environment, the truth is they are obliged to tend the garden, fetch water and care for livestock themselves in the absence of the slaves they formerly relied on. Nonetheless, they venture no further.
The northern soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), interrupts that peace dramatically. Bloody first aid – and later gruesome surgery – are carried out in the music room, guns are fired, expensive set pieces destroyed. But much of that comes later: after the initial flurry of excitement, the film settles into an easy pace driven far more by subtle character dynamics than action. Coppola has described this as her first attempt to write a heavily plot-driven film, building on tension and suspense, and in this regard she may need a little more practice. While the film achieves high tension very successfully in individual scenes, across its arc as a whole this aspect sometimes takes a back seat to the exploration of other ideas, and ultimately The Beguiled comes across as a tad calmer and more composed than the typical melodrama. The bulk of the film feels peaceful – lighthearted, even– as the building blocks for later eruptions are being prepared. But in the final act the situation implodes, alliances shift rapidly, and all previous events converge on the film’s chilling conclusion.
Those other ideas are mainly concerned with sexual and gender politics: and in this, the film excels. The setting of the half-abandoned school allows for the exploration of women and girls at various stages of life, and their different reactions to the one man at the centre of all the fuss. John McBurney is the charmer, the cad, familiar to most of us: but even the grown women here are relatively naïve, and he thinks he has them all in the palm of his hand. There’s the puppy love of kind little Amy (Oona Laurence) and Marie (Addison Riecke), totally unaware of their own eagerness to please him, shifting back into children’s innocent dancing games. Jane (Angourie Rice), a little older, is the most outspoken against his presence but easily flattered. Elle Fanning’s Alicia sits on the verge of womanhood, bored with school, aware of her ability to attract men, if as-yet-unaware of how obvious her actions are to others. Then again, the schoolteacher Miss Edwina – Kirsten Dunst – does not succeed at any greater discretion, and certainly has little more sense: it’s only the headmistress Martha, blunt and sure of herself, who resists McBurney’s charms, and even she dresses up for him at dinner. Here, the unspoken rules of social conduct are brought to the forefront, tangling themselves in a multitude of ways between the eight characters. But these are the subtleties of the women’s game: when McBurney takes things too far, with dramatic consequences, we see how the rules can be ignored, and how men’s anger and aggression can tear apart the lives of women unprepared to defend themselves. There are seven of them and one of him, but on a dime their kindly soldier can become a hulking, ferocious figure, bringing home the brutality of the war they have secluded themselves from.
All of this is beautifully spelled out through slightly more than an hour and a half of unhurried screenplay. The use of Phoenix’s score is minimal and effective, though less notable than the background noise of Virginia: the inescapable hum of cicadas, birdsong and gunfire help to ground the film, as do the air of decay in the gardens and the soft dusk light of the evening lookout. Coppola has stated that, “It’s not about the Civil War,” and while this assertion might take some defending, it’s clear what she means. The war itself is held at a remove. If we didn’t know from history, we would have no idea of their politics or ideologies: the only thing to matter is that they’re enemies. This seems to have been a deliberate decision on Coppola’s part. We’re informed not five minutes into the film that “the slaves have gone”; the 1971 film and original book both included a black slave who makes no appearance here. Coppola has been criticised for her erasure, and that’s a fair point, though it’s important to consider the alternative: talented as she is at what she does, I can’t imagine her doing anything but making a hash of that narrative. The result, of course, is that the women’s identity as slave-owners is removed from prominence. But that’s hardly out of line with Coppola’s thought process here: this is a film intimately concerned with the ways people are shaped by their environment and try to navigate within its confines. We see that in the importance they place on hospitality and decorum, on the feminine art of embroidery – the teachers raising the girls for a world that soon, as McBurney comments to Martha, will no longer exist. Whether it is about the Civil War or not, the more-than-aesthetic features of the vanishing antebellum South, the social habitus and cultural assumptions (not to mention the southern Gothic trademarks and other aspects which combine to give it a strong sense of place and time), mean it could not easily be anywhere else.
And finally, holding the film together is an almost flawless cast. Kidman and Dunst are on top form: Kidman in particular has the tricky job of delivering lines which amuse the viewer without undermining the internal seriousness of the film. Elle Fanning is perhaps a little too self-possessed for the intended silliness of her character. The younger girls are simply delightful, while Colin Farrell is utterly believable as the handsome Irish soldier. The beguiled, whichever of the characters you believe that to be, are a haunting set of individuals caught up in a strange, familiar, hard-to-believe, unsettlingly true story; and The Beguiled, if you’re planning a cinema trip, comes highly recommended.
The Beguiled is released in the UK on July 14. See the teaser trailer below: