The Beguiled is hypnotic vision of the apocalypse and very funny it is too. Set in a plantation-turned-schoolhouse in the Antebellum South, Colin Farrell plays a Unionist soldier who, injured, takes refuge in the house full of women and ghosts of the past. It is when you realise how hot all these women are for Farrell the truth of the story begins to take shape, clear and directly told.
Director Sofia Coppola has played her cards well, cleverly applying her specific brand of glacial irony to a Hollywood remake so as to achieve commercial appeal. She has taken the vague plot of the Don Siegel original, knowing it gives film buffs something to latch onto. And get angry with. No matter if the psychosexual mind games of Siegel’s version are absent, Coppola has instead layered over it her interests in celebrity, virginal desire and makeshift families.
This is reminiscent of Soderbergh’s Oceans Twelve, which ignores the want of its audience for a retread of the first installment’s indulgences and instead uses the clout afforded by its name recognition to play with Soderbergh’s own minor obsessions. These are indulgences of another kind, and the loose form of The Beguiled’s plot allows the characters to take a stronger shape than they have in any of her films since Marie Antoinette. The sparcity of the setting and the oppositional effects of the characters are played to heightened, comic effect, and the production design is second to none.
But it is the caliber of cast, and Coppola’s enjoyment of their presence with extended close-up, which truly brings the film into another world.
Nicole Kidman, in a sting of nineties and early noughties roles, proved herself as versatile, consistent, and magnetic as Meryl Streep. Who else could follow the exhaustion of the longest film shoot of all time, Eyes Wide Shut, with a turn matching the manic energy of Baz Luhrman’s filmmaking in Moulin Rouge? And then follow those by classing up The Others, delivering a heartbreaking, performance as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, a role which doubled as her crowning into Hollywood royalty. We can talk about Julianne Moore but commercially, Kidman is peerless. Her performance in Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, surely is as rigorous and draining as they come, a high watermark in any career, and her resurgence in the past year is proof if ever it were needed that Kidman’s tirelessless will give us a wealth of exciting performances for years to come. Here, as the house’s matriarch, she holds the film together and exhibits a quiet internal battle that does not quite reveal itself until the final section of the film.
Kirsten Dunst, whose breakout role came in Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, has also been through the Von Trier wringer, in his Meloncholia. She provides this elfin presence which some lambast as manic-pixie-dreamgirling but to which she always brings a depth that makes her characters feel more real than they are sometimes written. When given characters as well developed as Coppola provides, Dunst expertly busts the stereotype.
Elle Fanning has had a stellar few years but is still up and coming. She is great at delivering these emotions by using intense looks instead of words, and is well cast here, delivering her by now trademark demure longing and raging teenage passion which doesn’t know how to express itself.
These three actors who remain among the best and most groundbreaking of their respective generations, although mention must also be made of Farrell, who toys with his awkward sex-symbol persona with terrific results here.
Backlash to the film has revolved around Coppola’s negligence in ignoring the context of slavery and slave owners that informs the film’s setting. But the atmosphere of the film speaks for itself. Wide smokey roads are seeped in history. The high-society life these women enjoyed, provided for by slavery, is absent. The film communicates this lack without requiring the actors to state it aloud or provide a tokenistic voice. Even if the presence of the enslaved maid Mattie (key in the novel and Siegels version) could have added an extra dimension to the film, this version does not suffer for her absence.
Some critics want The Beguiled to state its position on this amoral situation. It is interesting that this backlash was absent at Cannes, where Coppola picked up the Best Director prize. And by the time the film reached the UK the discussion seems to have largely dissipated, the conversation moving elsewhere. Perhaps the European sensibility is less inclined to outrage at this American problem, perhaps there is a performative angle to this backlash. The expectation that Coppola, whose films consistently leave audiences unsatisfied and angry, should be all things to all people, is frankly ridiculous, especially in the context of the messages given by the film itself.
The women of the school are afraid to free themselves from the rules of a society that no longer functions anyway. They continue to play roles and themselves ignore the morality of the situation, refusing to believe they can be in a grey area or something other than the dainty, respectable women that they are trained to be.
One can see this reflected in the roles of outrage that American critics have taken, despite The Beguiled’s relative cultural insignificance. One wishes a film of this caliber could be seen as much as it is talked about, appreciated for its enigmatic power as much as it is criticised for its inability to promote an ideology.