Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is compelling Southern Gothic, richly textured and deeply female.
Southern Discomfortby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Civil War-era drama The Beguiled is Sofia Coppola’s reimagining of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel, which also was the basis for the 1971 Clint Eastwood film of the same name. It’s a new interpretation of same story from female characters’ point of view this time, director Sofia Coppola says. During the Civil War, so many women and girls from different stages from their lives were cut off from what lives would have been like. They are alone and forced to fend for themselves and a power struggle between men and women is at the heart of the story.
Atmospheric opening shots of gnarled trees dripping with Spanish moss pan down to a little girl (Oona Laurence) picking mushrooms in the early morning, with cannon fire in the distance, when she suddenly comes across a wounded Yankee soldier (Colin Farrell). Out of Christian duty, she takes him back to the seminary for young ladies, where she lives in an imposing, colonnaded antebellum mansion, owned and run by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), where there are only five remaining pupils, the rest having fled because of the Civil War. They decide to tend his wounds and return him to health before handing him over to the Confederate forces. Miss Martha’s primary motivation is to protect her pupils, they have to survive – and still be Southern ladies.
Inevitably, a handsome man’s arrival in a household of women turns their lives upside down. The house is ruled by female energy and Corporal McBurney is a provocation, a wolf among the sheep, and he elicits different responses from each of the repressed women and girls. He’s a survivor, an Irish mercenary and not a Southerner who took someone’s place for money. He plays on the sexual tensions between the women, each of whom tries to strike up a unique relationship with him, in ways depending on their age. Miss Martha, primly genteel yet steely, and strangely reminiscent of Acorn Antiques‘ Miss Babs, confesses the strain of being brave. Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), her subordinate fellow teacher, frustrated by her spinsterhood, sees a relationship with him as an escape route. Alicia (Elle Fanning) is the bad girl with raging hormones, whose behaviour incites jealousy and a catastrophic accident with a darkly amusing consequence, as Miss Martha to calls for the anatomy book and a saw. The result is a change in Corporal McBurney approach to the women and a resulting change in the power balance in the house, which Miss Martha cannot tolerate and which she puts an end to in a surprising way.
Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd creates beautifully composed scenes of flurries of pale, full skirts lit by soft candlelight. The dynamics of relationships around the dinner table are a delight. Most of the action is claustrophobically enclosed within the house, and it comes as a relief to sometimes see the sunlit woods outside. The final long shot of the women behind the barred gate of the estate is impressive. It’s a gripping film, beautiful and gruesome, but despite its powerful premise it could have benefited from more development and the denouement rather rushed – it’s a film you wish could have been longer.
Sofia Coppola won the Best Director prize for The Beguiled at the 70th Cannes Film Festival 2017.
The Beguiled premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is released on 14 July 2017 in the UK.