The Beguiled is another very good effort from Sofia Coppola, who finds herself exploring the female experience again, only this time in Civil War era Virginia; oh and no pop music.
Set in a girls’ school outside Richmond, VA, right in the heart of the U.S. Civil War, cannon blasts can be heard in the distance among the local crickets every time you stick your head out the window. Occupying the house is a headmistress, Miss Martha; a teacher, Edwina; and five students, Alicia, Jane, Amy, Marie and Emily. The film opens with Amy discovering a wounded Union soldier, John McBurney, a fresh off the boat Irishman from NY who is willing to run from this war. Martha stitches John up and what follows is a series of glances, looks and desires that risk tearing these young women apart.
Like most of Coppola’s work, she puts you into this world and just lets you sit in it, while the characters slowly reveal themselves and their desires among and to one another. There isn’t a driving plot beyond what they should do with McBurney, but the film is far more interested in observing these young women as they grapple with their feelings of having a man in the house, the first they’ve interacted with in years, especially one so charming and attractive. Nobody really knows what to do with themselves in the house, and this leads to many a humorous situations as the women posture themselves, not only with John, but also against one another. Everyone gets a moment with John to impress him and before we know it he is trying to stay around as long as possible, loving every minute of attention he gets from these women.
Coppola direction is beautiful throughout the film, mostly utilizing only natural lighting, and she continues to have a knack for making the mundane interesting. These girls are bored, brutally so, and few filmmakers have shown the ability of Coppola to make that not only beautiful, but engaging. There is a shot of Alicia sitting in a chair below the trees I could watch all day. The period details are impeccably recreated by Coppola and her team, with those subtle sound design bits giving the film a feeling of isolation on the edge of danger. The choreography and blocking of the girls also deserves special mention as more than a few times they will move as a group and settle into a stunning arrangement for another perfect composition. Her script is also deceptively funny, with all of her cast members perfectly capturing the tone of the picture. Not too silly, not too serious.
Coppola’s cast is also top-notch, with excellent work from everyone, top to bottom. The younger girls get a bit less of the spotlight, but they are always nailing their moments to shine. Addison Riecke, as Marie, in particular stands out, getting a couple of great one liners and a hilarious first encounter with McBurney. Angourie Rice plays the always cautious Jane, but she does a great job of playing her true desires just under the surface of her strong front. Oona Laurence’s Amy is the most vocal and comfortable with John, and she develops the most confident and trusting bond with the school’s visitor. Laurence really stands out from the pack as a different personality in the group, distinguishing herself nicely. Elle Fanning plays the bored and most outwardly sexual Alicia, who has daggers for eyes and loves the competition among the girls to woo McBurney. Fanning plays bored about as well as anyone in a Sofia Coppola film, but you can see the glee this whole experience is giving her from the instant the man shows up.
Kirsten Dunst plays Edwina with an appropriate confidence of someone who is aloof to her beauty and feels like she missed her chance. And she might be right, Edwina’s sadness over all of the men that would still love her possibly being dead is a worthy feeling, and Dunst makes you believe this is driving Edwina’s decision making. Nicole Kidman is excellent as always, getting to show us her desires more than almost anyone in the house, albeit in private, as the touch to a man is driving her crazy. Kidman, along with the rest of the women in the cast, do a great job of representing the struggle women have had, and still do, presenting themselves as an object of affection vs. an agent of their desires. These women are pushing against what is expected of them, even when there is no one around to tell them to fall back in line if they break through. Colin Farrell plays Corporal McBurney and he does a devilish good job of eating up all of this attention and turning on a dime the instant the women do something he doesn’t like. He’s a wonderful avatar for the faux-chivalry of men that still lingers today, happy to let a woman help him as long as it’s something he desires. Farrell is believable as a man that might make these women go wild, and just as convincing when he’s asked not to be so nice.
Coppola has crafted a beautiful picture in The Beguiled that also serves as a portrait of the repressive history women have had to endure, and continue to, in the face of a man’s attention. Meticulously directed, sharply written and quite excellent acting across the board make The Beguiled another strong entry into Coppola’s filmography.