Sofia Coppola takes on the Civil War in her latest film ‘The Beguiled.’ It originally starred Clint Eastwood in the 1971 version. Her retelling is more nuanced and focuses on the females in the story. Like her other works ‘Virgin Suicides,’ ‘Lost in Translation’ and ‘Somewhere,’ Coppola’s images are aesthetically pleasing and linger on the screen. With the help of cinematographer Philippe Le Sound, the images are beautifully shot with a Southern Gothic tone in mind. Premiering at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Coppola won Best Director for ‘The Beguiled’ becoming only the second woman since 1961 to walk away with the coveted prize. There is a maturity to her latest work that has established her as one of the most exciting auteurs working in Hollywood today.
The story is set in Virginia in 1864 during the waning days of the Civil War. A little girl named Amy (Oona Laurence) wanders into the forest to collect mushrooms in a basket. She stumbles upon a wounded Union soldier on the verge of death. It’s not clear whether he is a threat but he is grateful that she offers to take him to her all-girl boarding school. When they arrive, headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman), schoolteacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and the nymphet Alicia (Elle Fanning) have a debate whether to take him in and nurse his wounds or turn him over to the Confederate soldiers. “You are a most unwelcome visitor,” says Martha to Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). She agrees to take him in until he has built up enough health. He is locked in the music room but his presence causes a sexual awakening among the repressed women. As Martha stitches his torn leg and gives him a sponge bath, she shows a poised restraint as she splashes water on her face.
With McBurney’s presence in the house, he creates an interruption in the girls’ daily routine of Bible study, French lessons and etiquette classes. Even the young students want to chat with the stranger. He seems to have an effect on all the young women. In one scene, they invite McBurney to a dinner and all show up in their fanciest evening gowns. Coppola is a fashionista and always has her actresses decked out in the finest haute couture. Each one of them is competing for his attention in some way. The steely-eyed Martha appreciates his companionship over an aperitif. The prim and proper Edwina wants the dashing soldier to sweep her off her feet. The seductive Alicia wants to explore her awakened sexuality with him. At first, the cunning McBurney seems to have the upper hand until he makes one false move that alienates all of them.
This is where Coppola shows how quickly the tables are turned. The tone shifts and almost feels like a horror film. You don’t want to mess with Martha. Kidman’s performance is a real treat to watch. She gets to show her teeth but remains fully composed. This is a house run by women and the intruder soon realizes that he has overstayed his welcome. It is fascinating how McBurney is first looked as an object of affection and then as a threat. Coppola’s portrait of repressed and isolated women during wartime is mesmerizing. The war is never shown except for the distant sounds of explosions from cannons. Every scene is meticulously shot. The mossy woods and overgrown gated plantation to the school’s candle-lit interiors are realized in immaculate detail. Coppola’s love of photography shines through in every image. She allows each shot to linger so it has an opportunity to sink in.
Coppola’s Southern Gothic tale is a welcome addition to her impressive filmography. She achieves a female perspective to the Civil War tale with a first-rate ensemble cast. The gorgeously shot scenes give the story a fairytale quality. Although Kidman’s performance is the standout, each actress hits her mark. Coppola once again shows off her skill with period piece dramas. It’s an entrancing film that shows even the most proper women have needs but men ought to be careful who they are messing with. ‘The Beguiled’ is a must-see.