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Ben Rothstein

Film Review: The Beguiled

15 July 2017 Louis Gering

With seemingly effortless subtleties, Sofia Coppola paints a beautiful yet disturbing drama in The Beguiled, swooping the Cannes Film Festival off its feet and winning Best Director. Coppola’s adapted screenplay is equally worthy of recognition, as she transforms the original southern gothic novel into a feminist thriller.

Thomas P Cullinan’s 1966 novel of the same name lends The Beguiled its strong narrative backbone. Somewhere in Virginia, with the American Civil War raging in the distance, a forgotten seminary school for girls struggles to maintain expectations of civilised decorum and Christian values. Led by the strict Miss Farnsworth and her assistant Miss Abney, played by the marvellous Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst, five female pupils pass their days in numbing boredom. Their daily gardening chores, French lessons, and evening prayers are suddenly disturbed when one girl stumbles upon Corporal McBurney, a wounded Union soldier stunningly embodied by Colin Farrell. The runaway soldier realises that his survival depends on the desires projected on him from both women and the schoolgirls. Once fully recovered, the Corporal’s restored masculinity threatens to disturb the school’s strictly defined equilibrium. Tone and pace radically shift as McBurney realises there are just as many horrors looming behind the school’s white linen drapes as there are in the war he fled.


Image Credit: Ben Rothstein
 
The Beguiled depicts this interplay between hunger and horror, lust and loathing, mainly through glances; the blink of an eye can reveal an array of potential conspiracies. It is also the female gaze that gives the film a unique viewpoint, as for once it is a male protagonist struggling to be more than merely a projection of sexual desire. Rather than the masculine self-pity of Clint Eastwood’s performance in the 1971 screen adaption, the charismatic Farrell balances his willing objectification with grudging antipathy.
 
At certain moments the film is in danger of losing pace by overdoing the deliberate, beautiful lethargy. The first half has too many painterly establishing shots of the deteriorating school, but the outstanding central performances excuse any small shortcomings. Without ever verging on the desperate, Kidman expresses Farnsworth’s dilemma – torn between moral rigour and yearning desire - with heart-warming distress. Kirsten Dunst shakes off the sexual glamour Coppola once imbued her with to realise an absent-minded wallflower, whose wish to escape is evident in her sunken shoulders and pursed lips.


Image Credit: Ben Rothstein
 
Special mention must go to the stunning camera work and sound engineering. One dreamy sun-infused image follows the next, and makes gardening chores seem as picturesque as the war torn landscape of the outside world. The film’s suffocating atmosphere is increased by a lack of music. The only sounds are cannon shots from afar, until the last minutes of the film introduce a heavy baseline from French rock band Phoenix.  The move away from using defiant teenage pop tunes to construct an emotional framework is representative of Coppola’s development as a filmmaker, alongside the mature choices in camera and sound design.  The Beguiled is a must-watch, as its solid storytelling does not guide its audience to one conclusion, but instead a multitude of experiences.

The Beguiled is out now at cinemas nationwide.
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