Despite stellar cinematography and solid performances, The Beguiled is hampered by a lack of character development and zero intrigue.
The Beguiled is a remake of the 1971 Civil War drama starring Clint Eastwood. Both films get their source material from the Thomas Cullinan novel of the same name. The film centers around an escaped Union soldier played by Colin Farrell who is wounded and brought to a boarding house run by Mrs. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) by one of her students. Rather than simply turn him over to the southern forces, they allow him to recover from his wounds in one of the many rooms in her estate. Little did she realize the impact having a man around would have on a group of clearly repressed women. His warmth and charm win over the very rigid Mrs. Edwina played by Kristen Dunst and cause Alicia’s (Elle Fanning) heart to flutter. The sexual tension reaches a fever pitch when a betrayal occurs and everyone begins to realize who the real enemy is. The question then becomes, how are they supposed to handle it.
Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography is gorgeous. He makes great use of both candle and natural light to create the appropriate atmosphere for this narrative. Le Sourd is also able to capture the heat going on outside and inside the house too. By shooting many of the exterior shots in what appears to be during the early daylight hours, he was able to capture the rise in humidity. We are treated to a shot of steam seemingly rising from a nearby lake and the morning dew appearing to disappear before our eyes as the girls toil in the garden. Le Sourd is able to heighten the “heat” between Farrell and the rest of the cast by utilizing two shots and anytime they were in close and moving in ever so slightly as the sparks begin to fly.
Laura Karpman’s work with the score was marvelous. Her music certainly captures the tone of that era in American history.
Farrell was a great choice to play the role made famous by Clint Eastwood in 1971. The role of Colonel John Mcburney needed to be played by someone who has a mixture of charm but can quickly go dark without a moment’s hesitation. It also has to be believable that he be quite alluring to any number of the girls no matter what age they may be. Farrell is able to flirt with young Alicia, quickly pivot into talks of a future with Edwina, and still have a civil discussion about the need for a man in the house with Mrs. Farnsworth.
Kidman, Dunst, and Fanning all turn in solid performances. Kidman is shot out of a cannon with the type of energy reminiscent of characters from Steel Magnolias. Dunst’s character is reserved but can be quite cunning with her world play. Fanning is playing the repressed teenager who wants to feel the touch of a man.
Sophia Coppola’s attention to detail is always astounding to me. Whether it was the matching slippers from Lost in Translation or the use of the spy glass in The Beguiled. These girls live in a world shaped by life experiences which are as wide as the two inches Edwina moves the curtain at various points during the film. Their perception of the outside world is contained to what they observe in that spy glass. It’s this narrow collection of experience that contributes to them being so taken by the Colonel.
What Didn’t Work
While it’s obvious Coppola isn’t the biggest fan of commentary or even elaborate backstories for any of the characters in her projects, but Edwina seemed incomplete on screen. What we got was this woman who appears to have dedicated her entire life to helping young ladies who then tells a random stranger that she wants to run away from all of this. Why? What is it about Mrs. Farnsworth that causes her to want to run. Then, of course, the ending of the film was so jarring it left me wanting more.
The film would have gone up a few more notches for me had they focused more on the intrigue of all these girls lusting after one enemy soldier. In fact, Coppola may have ventured too far from the source material when crafting the narrative for this project. In the book, Farrell’s character has relations with multiple women before the story reaches its conclusion. Had Coppola included some variation of this in the film, the narrative would have been gushing with intrigue.
The Beguiled certainly contains elements that make this film far superior to any released this summer. The film is shot lavishly and the score is quite charming. Farrell, Kidman, Dunst, and Fanning all deliver solid performances in their respective roles as well. However, it’s hard not to wonder how much better this movie could have been had a few things been tweaked slightly. As it stands right now, Coppola’s latest project is worth seeing but then again most of her work generally is.