The Beguiled: Colin Farrell stirs passions to the very edge
Tensions rise in a subtle fashion in Sofia Coppola’s strange but worthwhile drama
Colin Farrell in The Beguiled. Photograph: Ben Rothstein/Focus Features
Film Title: The Beguiled
Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Reicke
Running Time: 94 min
Because we are now always at home to controversies, Sofia Coppola has, since the largely untroubled Cannes premiere of The Beguiled, got into some hot water for omitting African-American characters from her brief, beautiful, anaesthetised US Civil-War drama.
There are arguments on all sides. Any token inclusion of slave characters could risk causing greater offense than the decision to pare down Thomas Cullinan’s source novel. It’s hardly worth the fight.
What few in the US have noticed is that Coppola’s film actually tightens its focus on another ingredient in the nation’s melting pot. (I do not offer this as mitigation. I merely point it out.) Unlike Clint Eastwood in Don Siegel’s famous 1971 version, Colin Farrell is allowed to be properly Irish as wounded Corporal John McBurney. As McBurney tells it, he was barely off the boat before he had bagged $300 to take another man’s place in the Union army.
Now, as the war drags to its awful close, he finds himself slumped in agony against a tree in a southern forest. Young Amy (Oona Laurence), student at a nearby boarding school, spots the soldier when collecting mushrooms and – after recovering dispelled composure – she allows him to be brought back to a crumbling mansion inhabited by women alone.
Ms Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), the principal, stitches up his leg and sets him on the road to recovery. Making various unconvincing excuses, she decides not to hand over McBurney to friendly Confederate forces. Her assistant Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) takes a polite interest in their patient. Alicia (Elle Fanning), an older student, moves towards him in less ambiguous fashion.
Before you can say “biscuits and gravy”, the suppressed sexual passion is straining the bolts on the metaphorical pressure cooker. When John enjoys his apple pie, everybody wants to take some credit for its creation. The women compete to come up with the most slippery rationalisation for keeping the enemy combatant within the neoclassical pile.
In films such as The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola has betrayed an interest in exclusion and isolation. Her characters often group together to ward off worrying advances from those outside the metaphorical stockade. That taste for enclosure is more prominent than ever here.
Surrounded by billowing mists, distant muffled thuds offering the only connection with the continuing conflict, the house could be a supernatural realm in a Shirley Jackson story. It’s hard to imagine the characters existing in any other environment. Here is the only anywhere.
The characters rub against one another like deadened ghosts. Fanning’s youth causes her to lower inhibitions and do the things the other women barely allow themselves to contemplate. Kidman, always at her best when deathly, permits only tiny sparks of passion to break through her insulated carapace. But the tinder seems certain to catch eventually.
The Beguiled is a rare film that one might reasonably wish longer. Yes, Coppola’s drive for economy is commendable. Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography is alive to smoky versions of the South that colour vampire movies and Gothic fiction. The tension between the women is built up in commendably subtle fashion. Kidman, Fanning and Dunst effectively convey three different flavours of sexual covetousness.
But the final catastrophes come a little too late and a little too rapidly. The picture spend almost all its duration leading us to the edge of the cliff and then kicks us off before we have had time to properly enjoy the view.
Still, The Beguiled ends with a glorious shot that just about redeems its peculiarly structured narrative. Flawed, but undeniably worthwhile. Strange, but mostly in a good way. There’s nothing much like it in cinemas.