Sofia Coppola / Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning / Drama / 2017 / 15 / 94mins
Sofia Coppola turns a 70s classic film on its head by focusing from the female perspective. It’s a bold premise and, with a fantastic cast at her disposal and a Cannes Best Director award to boot, you’d be thinking this was a predetermined walk in the park.
The American Civil War, 1864. A girls school in Virginia run by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is lumbered with injured Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) as the cannons rage on nearby. Although an enemy, Martha chooses to help the soldier before handing him over to Confederate forces. The presence of a man elicits a flurry of excitement, with tutor Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) and student Alicia (Elle Fanning) soon falling for the infiltrator’s charm.
DISCLAIMER: I feel obliged to mention that I have yet to see the 1971 original. Please, contain your anger.
One thing The Beguiled does fantastically is visual play. The overarching presence of men invades the screen: the sound of war bombards each scene, there’s whispered gossip of trespassers in the night, a reluctance to leave the safety of the grounds, the creeping vines and overgrown weeds shroud the landscape in mystery. The geography – both physical and audible – serves to entomb everyone. Then there’s the revolver, the most phallic of props. Power shifts with the owner, and fear comes for those who are unarmed.
No matter what, Coppola can sit back knowing that her movie looks gorgeous. Add a monochrome filter to each frame and suddenly you’re transported through a gallery of 19th Century photography. The decision to use an old-fashioned frame ratio (squarer in appearance) enhances this, whilst natural lighting emphasises shadows and the lurking, haunting presence of others. Despite all this, the camerawork itself is never utilised thematically. There’s no baby fed zooms, pans or dollies to initiate panic, fear or even sensuality. Instead, there’s a lingering sense of boredom. And it is that boredom which seemingly propels the plot in a timeless limbo – it’s quite maddening to watch.
For the script’s pitfalls, the decision by Coppola to focus from the female rather than the male perspective is a masterstroke. Gender politics puts relationships under further scrutiny. As the elder statesmen, Kidman, Dunst and Farrell do a superb job of developing their characters in this scenario. The change is minute, but it’s enough to shift the paradigm from ‘excitement’ to ‘disturbing undercurrents’. Farrell gives off the necessary pervy vibes and Kidman plots his dismissal with equal vim – Dunst the harangued go-between. The youth are a mixed bag. Fanning in particular doesn’t explore beyond her flat teenage lust, a disappointing turnout from a promising actor.
Where’s the sexual tension? Where’s the sense of dread? Considering the marketed plot twist, the final product was underwhelming. Though it cannot be denied – Coppola has moulded The Beguiled into something relevant and beautiful to explore. Fans will be at home, others will want to let the torture be.
Film as a Film – 4 / Target Audience – 3 / General Audience – 2
The Beguiled is in cinemas now
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