MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Beguiled’ is a Southern-charmed fever dream

Thanks to beautiful direction from Sofia Coppola and hefty, impressive performances, this Cannes favorite shines

| June 26, 2017

Sofia Coppola has been a filmmaker that’s been all over the place for many people, in both style and quality. While many people lauded her with praise for “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation,” the latter earning her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, but were colder to her tries at “Marie Antoinette” and “The Bling Ring,” with “Somewhere” falling in the middle. I, myself have quite enjoyed Coppola’s work over the years, because you never know what you are ever going to get from her, like many other filmmakers. She doesn’t particularly have a style about her that’s immediately recognizable, but rather morphs herself into whatever she needs herself to be for each specific picture. While this has proven to show some weak spots in some of her lesser films, it’s impressive and commendable nonetheless for her bravery in trying. Now, Coppola has returned with “The Beguiled” that let her take home the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival, the first time a woman has done so in over 50 years. If that in itself doesn’t sell you, let its plot.

Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is a widow in 1864 Virginia who runs a school for girls with help from teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst). When a young girl, Amy (Oona Laurence) comes across a wounded Union soldier, Col. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), she escorts him back to the house where the rest of the house of six assist in his recovery. While incredibly apprehensive at the thought of an enemy soldier within the house, the women soon warm up to the soldier, with Edwina and Alicia (Elle Fanning) taking the most liking to him. But before long, passions are tested and tempers are flared in the Southern heat, leading to dangerous consequences for both parties.

I would highly suggest not watching the trailer for “The Beguiled” before going into it, if not only because it gives quite a bit away, but it also leaves you completely unaware of the ride the film seeks to take you on. This isn’t a traditional thriller as it much quieter (literally) and meticulous than a typical revenge story might take. Coppola makes this film feel as natural as possible, even going without a score for a good portion of the film for the characters to interact in complete silence, which works quite well for itself. The music is sparingly used and when it is, it feels right. This is the exact opposite of something like “Baby Driver,” and it works exceedingly well for its setting and story.

While the cast of this film is small, their performances all pack a different punch. I’m quite partial to Kidman’s stern mannerisms and cold demeanors, as I find them to be the most natural feeling for the Australian actress. It’s incredibly refreshing to see Dunst return to the screen after a hiatus of mainstream visibility for a while, and her interesting take on Edwina is magnetic and tragic all at once. Farrell makes for a compelling obstruction, with audiences constantly wondering if he is a harmless visitor or a malicious intruder. Meanwhile, Fanning works her magic as yet another over-protective teenager unsure what to do with her burgeoning sexuality. Altogether, these dynamics create a tense, dramatic and scandalous atmosphere that feels inherently feminine without ever sacrificing its dark nature.

Shot in 1.66:1 on 35mm film by Philippe Le Sourd, “The Beguiled” is one of the most aesthetically beautiful films you will see this year. The narrow aspect ratio creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that makes this seemingly large house feel smaller and smaller as the film goes on, as the camera shots get closer and closer with each passing moment. The beautiful Southern landscapes provide a beautiful palette for Le Sourd to work with in 35mm and he accomplishes this with a great, yet dark richness that you just can’t get from digital filmmaking in a standard aspect ratio.

There’s a certain slowness to “The Beguiled” that makes me think that mainstream audiences aren’t going to take to the film as well as the art-house audience that I think Focus Features initially intended the film to be for. This isn’t a fast-moving film (despite only a 93 minute runtime), nor is it a sensationalist picture that takes revenge and distrust to the extreme. This is a film with an incredibly organic feel to it, one that feels realistic to what the tense exchanges between six women and one man would be like in the 1860s, and the lengths each of them would be able to go to in that time realistically to protect themselves from the dangers they believe to be present. Don’t expect brutal comeuppance or complicated methods, this is a film rooted in simplicity that Coppola seeks to expand in her filmmaking more than her storytelling.

Now, there’s a decent-sized elephant in the room with this new adaption of Thomas Cullinan’s novel form the 1960s. In the original renditions, there was a slave character that lived with the girls in the house as well. Coppola decided that for her version of “The Beguiled,” she would cut the character from the film, prompting some criticism from those on social media. When prompted about the controversy, Coppola responded that she didn’t want to deal with such a touchy subject as a white filmmaker in a story that didn’t directly rely on slavery in its story, as well as preventing young black girls from seeing themselves on screen casually as a slave. While diversity has been a bit of an issue in some of Coppola’s films, I can respect this decision from her standpoint, especially that perhaps in the novel, prose would allow for Cullinan to add some deeper meaning to a slave character that a film might not be able to tackle, leaving the film to feel more exploitative than helpful. Doesn’t change the fact that Coppola’s movies are white-fests, but it is an admirable decision I find.

There’s a certain vintage feel to “The Beguiled” that I really dug. This is a film that is distinctly feminine in execution, but entirely organic in its screenplay and female perspective this time around. The smaller minority of detractors of “The Beguiled” have found it to be an unnecessary remake, but I find Coppola’s switch to the female perspective to be an entirely fresh look at how a story can be turned on its head without changing a single thing about its sequence of events. And besides, who cares? There are countless other remakes that do a much, much worse job at reimagining any sense of purpose from it. And I heard no complaints when the Coen brothers “remade” “True Grit,” to no one’s disdain. “The Beguiled” is the textbook definition of a classy film, and it’s clear that Coppola deserved every bit of that award she won at the Cannes Film Festival. I’m hoping its summer release doesn’t exempt it from Oscar talk, but regardless, “The Beguiled” is a beautiful, wonderfully acted, tense film that really puts a new spin on “Southern hospitality.”

4/5

Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard.
Runtime: 93 minutes.
Rating: R for some sexuality.
Opening in select Charlotte-area theaters on June 30.

Focus Features presents, an American Zoetrope production, “The Beguiled”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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