How much does it take to push a good person to the edge? What constitutes a “good” person? Are our sexual instincts something that will always ultimately prove to be our undoing? The answer is never as cut and dry as we tend to think, and the sad fact of life is that even the most decent of human beings can be twisted into something unrecognizable. Sofia Coppola’s latest film, The Beguiled, is a film that explores these ideas, and does so in a calm, tasteful, and meditative way that really sticks with the viewer.
The story takes place a few years into the American Civil War at a Southern all-girls’ boarding school. One of the girls stumbles upon a wounded Union soldier — Colin Farrell’s John McBurney — and takes him back to the school, headed by Nicole Kidman’s Martha Farnsworth. She begrudgingly agrees to take him in, believing it the “Christian” thing to do. Against their better judgment, they shield his presence from the patrols of Rebel soldiers that make their way through every so often. Over time, as John grows healthier, a dangerous sexual tension begins to arise in the household, and an undercurrent of rivalries between some of the older women (Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning) begins to take hold.
It’s worth noting that The Beguiled is based on the novel of the same name by Thomas P. Cullinan. The novel was once adapted back in 1971. It was helmed by Invasion of the Body Snatchers director Don Siegel, and starred Clint Eastwood as John McBurney. I should say up front that I’ve never seen this adaptation, so I can’t speak to how Coppola’s version measures up to it.
Now let’s talk about the film itself. How did it hold up?
I have to say, I pretty much adored this movie. The cinematography was gorgeous, and the cast that includes a good number of young unknowns holds up well in several prolonged scenes. More than anything, I appreciate the nuance that Coppola brought in its direction. Make no mistake, every person in this movie is a good person. Despite what the trailers may make you think, this isn’t a torture porn-esque story where the women take out their frustrations on a helpless man. This is a story about how circumstance and human instinct can lead to an irreversibly devastating situation. It’s a situation that’s no one’s fault, and you can’t help but feel sorry for all parties involved.
As mentioned above, it’s very well acted by Farrell, Kidman, Dunst, Fanning, and a handful of younger actors, and this was no easy feat. The personalities of characters like Kidman’s Martha and Dunst’s Edwina is a difficult one to capture. Raised in the South in the 1800s, there was a certain amount of self-restraint that one would expect. And yet under the surface of that facade, the actresses made it clear that there was a lot brewing underneath the surface. Farrell himself also brought his A-game, playing the wounded and polite Union soldier who slowly crumbles under the physical pressures. Again, the performances are nuanced, as there’s a lot of unspoken depth that is brought forth by their respective actors, and we can’t help but also give Coppola kudos for pulling off what could have been a boring and shallow take.
One aspect I need to caution viewers about is its pacing. Like many slower thrillers, this is a film that movies at a very deliberate pace. I wouldn’t call it needlessly slow — every scene serves a purpose, and when all said and done, it only clocks in at 90 minutes or so — but in today’s era of filmmaking, it’s a definite slowdown from what we’re used to. In many ways, though the genre is much different, I’d compare the pacing to something like last year’s The Witch, which featured very slow, meditative scenes that seemed to take forever, but ultimately contributed to the tension and atmosphere of the piece as a whole.
The Beguiled is not a film for everybody, but between the rising tension, gorgeous visuals, great acting, and lean story, it’s one that plenty of film lovers will relish for years to come.
The Beguiled hits select theaters on June 23, and goes wide on June 30.