In less than 20 years, and with five feature films under her belt, filmmaker Sofia Coppola has amassed a rather small but powerful slate of motion pictures. Small though it is, her filmography is a charged batch of feminist expression that tells the world she isn’t ready to unleash her next expression until she is good and ready. So it is that we come to her sixth feature, The Beguiled, a remake of the 1971, Don Siegel-directed, Clint Eastwood-starring thriller about the dangers of misogyny in the days of the American Civil War. As with her previous works, it’s an immaculately crafted and powerful drama of human interaction and survival in this male-dominated world, and, once again just like her previous efforts, The Beguiled is a phenomenal film, an early candidate as one of the best films the year will offer.
Based on the 1966 novel written by Thomas P. Cullinan, the film tells the story of John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Union soldier who has been injured on a battlefield in the South and escapes the war into the woods nearby. It is here where McBurney is discovered by a young girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), one of a small number of Confederate women living alone in a boarding school just a few miles from the battlefield. It doesn’t take much to convince the headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), to take the injured soldier in and tend to his wounds. Though these women are loyal to the Confederacy, they are more loyal to the acts of kindness they know God will smile upon.
After McBurney recoups from his wounds, though, the relationships he sparks with some of the women, most notably Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and Alicia (Elle Fanning), begins to drive a wedge between some of the group. With the sounds of the battlefield filling the air, the mostly quiet and calm demeanor of the boarding school becomes shaken as new revelations and reactionary acts create an atmosphere of tension and danger, and the women become driven to decide their best course of action for this mysterious stranger who has infiltrated their lives.
The original, cinematic adaptation of Cullinan’s novel was released the same year (1971) its director, Siegel, and star, Eastwood, unleashed Dirty Harry upon the world. While that film quickly became a symbol for male dominance in the action world, their version of The Beguiled flew quietly under the radar. It’s no wonder Coppola, who wrote and directed this new take, chose the story as her latest effort, a statement on how that world of male dominance has drastically changed in the last 40 years but still has a lot of work to do to completely correct its course in the modern world.
Coppola’s take on The Beguiled is much quieter than Siegel’s, choosing atmosphere and subtext to fill in the slight gaps in story where exposition would typically lie. The filmmaker who, with Lost in Translation, gave us a whisper in the ear that, though silent, spoke volumes keeps the same level of unspoken drama alive in her latest work. Each one of these women as well as McBurney have a history about them that mostly goes undivulged, but Coppola gives the viewer just enough information so that those histories casually come to light. As the story progresses more and more of that unspoken information is relayed to the viewer until the narrative’s fateful course is ultimately revealed and can go in only one direction.
More than the narrative, the film relies heavily on its humid Southern Gothic atmosphere: the insect sounds of the Southern woods, the ambience of a nearby battle as evidence of an ever-present war, and the stagnant heat that gives the tension of the proceedings that much more weight. None of this is blatant, and Coppola once again proves her worth as a master in subtextual storytelling and layered filmmaking.
It certainly helps that the performances involved in The Beguiled each offer a new element to the overall narrative. Farrell’s McBurney is something of a powder keg, and, though his charm and friendly exterior is meant to calm the nerves of these women, you just know there is something nefarious bubbling underneath. Kidman, always a powerhouse of histrionic expression, seems almost subdued in her performance here as Farnsworth, an aspect that gives the latter moments in the film all the more weight and suspense. Hers is a example of control that would come off as surprising if Kidman weren’t such an immediate example of master thespianism. Dunst gives a layered turn as the sad but loving Edwina. Fanning’s performance is levelheaded but shakable, a dynamic counterpoint to Farrell’s masculine force that drives the narrative.
Artful and cinematic but with a heavy resonance that sticks to you like the Southern heat, Coppola’s take on The Beguiled couldn’t possibly have come at a better time for the gender-driven world of modern cinema. Each and every new aspect to the story builds on the richness involved, the beautiful and atmospheric film surrounding it giving more and more evidence of the talent at work here. Though her works never say more than necessary, Coppola always has a way of divulging much, and The Beguiled may be her most powerful and thought provoking work of expression yet.