The Beguiled Review
Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled resembles a decadent pie stuffed with poison apples. Fluffy mounds of cream and a golden, crispity crust – Coppola’s atmospheric outer layer – entice hungry audiences on sight alone. Southern comfort reminds of firefly fields and womanly sophistication in the most innocent ways. Aromatic warmth wofts under noses, but each bite – the scenes that Coppola structures – brings upon the most delicious darkness. Notes of sweetness (a child’s newfound friendship) and spice (the fatal attraction that brews) intoxicate with pleasurable trappings. Coppola’s savory four-star treat is an achievement in both tone and repercussion, and apologies for the metaphor, but all its best scenes play out during mealtime – my madness is with good reason, rest assured.
Ms. Coppola’s 2017 “thrill-ish-er” is both a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 caper and an adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel, with Colin Farrell stepping in as wounded Union soldier John McBurney. The ailing “bluebelly” – discovered laying under a tree by young Amy (Oona Laurence) – is taken into a girl’s school/shelter during America’s Civil War. Headmaster Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) immediately declares McBurny’s stay a short one, but her pupils enjoy having a man around. Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) falls victim to the Irishman’s charms, while Alicia (Elle Fanning) woos her older guest. One by one, the women of Farnsworth’s estate fight for McBurny’s attention – but the competition becomes an unhealthy one. One man, seven women (of varying ages) and countless lessons to be learned. Maybe times weren’t simpler way back when?
In period, Coppola embraces the smokey isolation of war-torn Virginia. You have to remember, men had been shipped away to fight our historic North vs. South battle. Farnsworth’s mansion allows no contact outside huge iron gates except when friendly soldiers ride by. When McBurny enters, he’s the first man ANY of these girls/ladies/women have gotten close to in – well, three years had passed since war started, so draw your own assumptions. Salacious secrets and combative actions are a given with so many puritanical pretties being teased by temptation at one time. Comical instances are drawn from characters prancing around with lavish jewelry to impress McBurny, while empty threats of Confederate imprisonment are Farnsworth’s only weapon. Man (singular) against women (sirens of pleasure), plain and simple.
As the story spins, McBurny becomes romanticized in the eyes of each female. Little Marie (Addison Riecke) gifts him a bible for last rights if needed, while Alicia tempts with goodnight kisses. Excitement picks up around the house, but while we’re giggling like schoolgirls at cute little asides, Coppola’s stoking a fire that’s about to blaze out of control. It’s subtle – her most endearing directorial quality – but the smallest details usher in a total aesthetic overtaking.
Correct me otherwise, but I believe scenic shots of the mansion’s front-facing facade go from burnt orange sunniness (opening scenes) to grey-clouded bleakness over time. Such an “insignificant” detail, but Coppola is manipulating tension even on the slightest level. Refinement turns to cattiness, McBurny’s open honesty twists into survival fears, yet Farnsworth clings to a “Catholic” goodness that always positions her clan on favorable moral ground. It’s slightly cultish – one dinner table frame in particular screams The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – and so hooked on doe-eyed gazes. Purity corrupted, then righteousness allowed.
This is a movie about “vengeful bitches” (according to marketing adverts), but Colin Farrell’s perfect casting requires momentary applause. As the charismatic houseguest who’s sure to weasel his way into each girl’s fantasy, McBurny is a dashing gentleman. As a scorned bastard, McBurny unleashes a primitive disregard with fiery hatred. He gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar and demands forgiveness – which he does not receive. After this moment, he’s the vexing McBurny who proclaims no wrongdoing. It’s all on Farnsworth’s gang. Their fault he sheepishly led on numerous females. Their fault he’s incapacitated even though he used lust to his advantage. You can picture Coppola smirking as the ladies scheme against McBurny, and then manically laugh upon that final supper congregation. Farrell’s cries fall on deaf, unsympathetic ears. It’s not revenge, it’s defiant comeuppance.
As necessary, those ravishing dames of The Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies steal Coppola’s show. Whether they’re joyously dancing as worryless children or exposing their shoulders (HARLOT!), attraction is soft-spoken. Sultry poise and grace through composition. Kidman’s insistence on belle-of-the-ball properness never wavers, much like her posture and scrunched face. Dunst’s dreamer lets herself become an object, only to assert dominance in a corset-tearing fit of passion. Fanning is a whimsical little nymph, Angourie Rice sucks-up and Oona Laurence is just the most adorable frontier daughter. Coppola plays the dynamic of family against personal fulfillment, but still puts Farnsworth’s instruction first. She’s the mama bear and the remainder her cubs. You do NOT mess with mama’s kin. Poke the bear and incur her wrath.
The Beguiled is about shrugging perception (a household of women not only surviving, but *thriving* without men), machismo unchecked (never a man’s fault) and taking deviousness for granted (women are smarter, goddamit). Sofia Coppola erects 1800s patriarchal structures, then bashes them down with a thrilling deep-dive into consequence by choice. John McBurny may curse the women who saved his life, but karma, she is the biggest bitch of them all. Such is a sinful song of chirping cicadas and passionate grunts at midnight – a romantic period setup that unfolds into the most tantalizing danger. Hell hath no fury like the lonely love interest you left awaiting your post-supper slip in, some might say.
The Beguiled is a deliciously dangerous period thriller that refuses to let a man's privilege go unchecked like the Hollywood standard.