A Modern Masterpiece: 'The Beguiled' Film Review
by Will Lindus
56 years ago, Yuliya Solntseva became the first woman to win the coveted Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival for Chronicle of Flaming Years. This year, Sofia Coppola became the second woman ever to earn this title for The Beguiled, her dark, atmospheric take on Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil. That only two women have been bestowed this award in the illustrious film festival’s 70 year history speaks volumes to the uneven playing field upon which female filmmakers are forced to play. It also speak volumes about the quality of Coppola’s work; The Beguiled is, simply put, one of the best films of the year, one that demands recognition.
Set during the Civil War, the film opens on the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, a mansion located in the south and run efficiently by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). Assisted by the guileless Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), Miss Martha’s young wards are taught academic, artistic, and practical skills until one day when their studies are disturbed by the sudden arrival of a wounded Union soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell). Despite owing allegiance to the Confederacy, Miss Martha and her students opt to nurse McBurney back to health.
It doesn’t go well.
Part of the strength of The Beguiled is its tense, atmospheric reliance on Southern Gothic sensibilities. Many of the sequences are purposefully dimly lit, giving the impression of natural lighting. During night time sequences, this allows for shots that feel as though they were lit solely by candlelight, while sunlight cascading through windows during daytime sequences allows the white dresses, walls, and drapes found throughout the Farnsworth Seminary to pop with vivid life.
Each of the actors brings a masterful presence to the screen. Nicole Kidman displays a stern outward exterior that is tempered by her genuine concern for the well-being of her girls. As she spends more time in the presence for Corporal McBurney, her firmest of assertions begin to waver under the power of his silver tongue. As McBurney, Farrell straddles a line between disarming vulnerability and effortless charm which ingratiates him to his caregivers. Dunst is wide-eyed and innocent, a baby rabbit of a human being who allows herself to open herself up to McBurney after she catches his eye. And Elle Fanning, fresh on the heels of stunning performances in The Neon Demon and 20th Century Women, flawlessly executes the acidic cynicism of the young Alicia.
The film is cleanly and efficiently paced, with the first sequence establishing a slow, bubbling sense of unease that remains ever present through the final shot of the film. The pacing is gracefully efficient until things begin to go wrong in the film; then, that efficiency turns brutal and savage. The Beguiled has several more tricks up its sleeve, ones that would spoil the experience if revealed or even hinted at in this review. What’s important to note is that every story beat is earned, either through the unfolding of elements occurring on screen or through ‘a-ha’ moments that unearth character motivations that are both surprising and satisfyingly realized.
Bottom Line: As previously mentioned, The Beguiled is one of the most fascinating and intriguing films of 2017 thus far. Coppola’s vision is singular and focused, developing a narrative that is both methodically and strategically paced, while also being supported by a cast that has been given superb direction. The cinematography is brilliant, creating gorgeous scenes that are equally beautiful and suspenseful, holding aloft a narrative that finds elegance in its horror.
4.5 out of 5 Bear Paws