The Beguiled (2017)

  • Time: 91 min
  • Genre: Drama | Western
  • Director: Sofia Coppola
  • Cast: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Colin Farrell, Elle Fanning


At a girls’ school in Virginia during the Civil War, where the young women have been sheltered from the outside world, a wounded Union soldier is taken in. Soon, the house is taken over with sexual tension, rivalries, and an unexpected turn of events.


  • (RATING: ☆☆☆☆½ out of 5 )

    GRADE: B+


    IN BRIEF: A lively re-telling of a Gothic melodrama that camouflages its silly trappings with excellent acting and masterful direction.

    SYNOPSIS: A wounded Union soldier seeks some Southern comfort.

    RUNNING TIME: 1 hr., 34 mins.

    JIM’S REVIEW: “One man…seven women…in a strange house!” That was the original tagline for the 1971 Southern Gothic melodrama, The Beguiled, starring Clint Eastwood. That film was a guilty pleasure of sexual repression during the Civil War (against the free love vibes of the seventies). Its viewpoint was a warped war of the sexes, eventually leading to Mr. Eastwood’s emasculation. The anticlimactic ending remains the same in both Ms. Coppola’s version as in Mr. Siegel’s (which is far as removed from the novel’s denouncement as possible). But this remake tones down the melodrama completely and turns the film into a serious and thought provoking drama.

    Writer / Director Sofia Coppola has taken Don Siegel’s cult film and given it a revisionist spin. Her battle of the sexes tale has streamlined its story, eliminated any vestige of the slavery issue and a backstory of incest and child molestation. She has made some major improvement to delineate the characters and their ulterior motives and altered what was once a half-baked tale of carnal lust, setting her new story on a slow simmer. All traces of pulp have been removed and the film slowly, sometimes too slowly, percolate in its own juices. No longer an overly melodramatic tale of unbridled passion, her historical drama is a re-imagined world where willful spinsters and manly scoundrels thrives. Ms. Coppola’s film version focuses on the manipulation of the male upon the female rather than the reversal of this premise. These ladies take female empowerment to a whole other level.

    Colin Farrell plays John McBurney, a wounded Union soldier. Found bloody, handsome, and weaken, he is taken to Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies to recover from his injuries. The war raging outside its gate seems like a mere afterthought compared to the battle-lines that are soon drawn inside this less-stately mansion.

    As John is nursed back to health, he begins to bond with this brood and uses his sexuality to his own advantage. The place is a hothouse of wanton desires and sexual tension as the ladies ogle and obsess about this hunk of man-bait, although Miss Farnsworth (a superb Nicole Kidman) will have none of that behavior under her roof. After all, there must be a price to be paid for illicit sex and sinful thoughts. Vengance has its sweet reward, or does it?

    Farrell is perfectly cast. His interpretation of McBurney is more sexual predator than victim. He knowingly acts to charm and “beguile” his female prey. Those objects of desire include Alicia (Eli Fanning), a lusty teenage Lolita, Edwina (Kristin Dunst), who may or may not be his true love, Amy (Oona Laurence), a sweet innocent child who soon realizes that evil does exist in this world, and Miss Farnsworth herself. The acting is solid throughout, especially Ms. Kidman who plays the pious headmistress caught in a power struggle of conflicting emotions. From her subtle come-hither glances and nervous reactions in some scenes to deliberate controlled manipulation and righteous indignation in others, the actress creates a character whose words never are quite in sync with her actions. This keeps the audience guessing about her real motives throughout the film. The scenes involving her and Mr. Farrell serve to highlight the rivalry between their characters and up the ante of psychological suspense while downplaying some of the strained and palpable sexual tension.

    Ms. Coppola directs with authority and skillfully ratchets up the tension. She painstakingly shows the mundane aspects of 19th century life and leisurely shows that period with memorable images that help to establish her characters and the era with where they survived (a close-up of a child’s treasure trove of inanimate objects, wisps of cannons’ black smoke in the distance against a dusk sky, scenes of proper ladylike behavior from evening prayer groups to classes on proper etiquette). There is such poetic clarity in her vision which makes her film all the more compelling.

    Production values are high. Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography is stunning. His use of candle-lit corridors and shadowy corners add to the overall atmosphere of this Gothic house of horror. Lovely period costumes by Stacey Battat add that subtle touch of Southern genteel respectability and the dissonant music score by Phoenix feeds into its penny dreadful material source.

    The film is all romantic notions turned on its head and sexual restraint stretched to the limits. It hides the pulp beneath its splendid veneer with Ms. Coppola’s strong direction and the fine acting from its cast. The moviegoer remains involved from the start. The Beguiled does just that and more.

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  • To beguile is to deceive or divert and The Beguiled, directed by Sofia Coppola from Thomas C. Pullman’s 1966 novel and Don Siegel’s 1971 film adaptation, certainly beguiles one with its delicacy, decorum and gentility. Yet its atmospheric lushness, soundtrack of cricket song and whispering winds, and the rustling of the angelically coloured costumes belie the horror to come. Whilst less lurid than Siegel’s version, Coppola’s deceptively dainty rendering is still very much a southern melodrama at heart.

    The film begins in the woods, as most fairy tales do, when young Amy (Oona Laurence) comes upon a wounded soldier by the name of Colonel John McBurney (Colin Farrell). It is 1864, three years into the Civil War, and already his presence signals danger for he is a Union deserter. Amy, curious and considerate, decides to bring him to her school, Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, which has been abandoned save for its headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman), spinster teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and four other students Alicia (Elle Fanning), Jane (Angourie Rice), Emily (Emma Howard), and Marie (Addison Riecke). The septet have been whiling away their time sewing and embroidering, conjugating French verbs, running the household, and saying evening prayers so it’s no surprise that his presence immediately has each of them bewitched, bothered and bewildered.

    McBurney, who has no wish to be handed over as a prisoner of war to the Confederate Army, deploys his Irish charm with Martha, Edwina and Alicia particularly affected. Alicia is the oldest of all the students, and clearly has no compunction about conveying her interest in the soldier, even sneaking into his room and waking him with a kiss. Martha, who initially reminds him that he is a most unwelcome visitor that they are merely practicing Christian charity by nursing him back to health, is swayed by his courtliness and his empathy for everything she’s had to do to survive the war. However, most dangerously disarmed is Edwina, who believes McBurney’s declarations of love and hopes that he will be the white knight to take her out of the seminary that has served as both prison and sanctuary. The jostling for his affection is played out in a marvellous dinner scene that finds all of the belles dressed in their finery, trading demure but barbed insults and, most tellingly and amusingly, discussing who is most responsible for the apple pie that McBurney compliments.

    Coppola won the Best Director prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, making her only the second woman to do so in the festival’s history (the first was Yuliya Solntseva for The Chronicle of Flaming Years in 1961). The jury’s decision might seem generous at first glance since there isn’t necessarily anything in The Beguiled that she hasn’t already done in her previous films. Yet the subtlety, intelligence and power of her direction accumulates. The way she establishes the elements that will soon take on greater significance – the Confederate Army patrol, Martha’s revolver, the mushrooms, Edwina’s pin – or her compositions of the women, whether gathered in prayer or around a piano, that may convey differing individual intentions but are underlined by a collective mindset. There’s a tenseness and terseness, a very clear sense of purpose, and a rationality that renders the more extreme moments of the film all the more chilling.

    The technical contributions are unsurprisingly excellent, from Stacey Battat’s costumes which come to resemble gossamer armour to Philippe Le Sourd’s painterly and evocative lensing of the candlelit interiors and the sunlit exteriors. Above all else, The Beguiled is about the moments where faces express everything: the hopeful blush that pierces through the melancholy mask of Dunst’s visage, the flashing fury in Farrell’s eyes as McBurney drops all seductive pretence and, most of all, the absolute steel that Kidman embodies as the woman may preach compassion but isn’t above getting blood on her hands whether by vengeance or necessity.

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