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Sex and Betrayal Spark Drama in Sofia Coppola’s THE BEGUILED (Review)

Sex and Betrayal Spark Drama in Sofia Coppola’s THE BEGUILED (Review)

Stories of war are most often stories of men–men stranded in far-flung battlefields, men rained on by bullets and debris, men ripped from the civility of society and surrendered to savagery. But what of the women in wartime? In the enchanting Civil War drama The Beguiled, acclaimed writer/director Sofia Coppola explores the stories of a band of Southern belles, and reveals how savagery can thrive in presumably safe society.

Adapted from Thomas P. Cullinan‘s 1966 novel of the same name, The Beguiled centers on the inhabitants of Farnsworth Seminary, a girls school housed in a grand mansion in 1864, Virginia. In the film’s opening, a 12-year-old girl in pigtails strolls through a picturesque forest, humming sweetly as she searches for mushrooms. It’s an idyllic image, except in the distance sounds the boom, boom, boom of canon fire. She’s not so far from the battlefields. But these sounds and the dark smoke that rises above the trees has become a grim part of her routine. She’s resigned to it. Still, it’s a shock when gentle Amy (Oona Laurence) stumbles across wounded Yankee, John McBurney (Colin Farrell).

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Compelled to care for him as she has many a wounded bird, Amy obligingly guides this seeming enemy back to the school. There, he will be welcomed and nursed with a cautious generosity from headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), sheepish teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and a pack of curious students, including Alicia (Elle Fanning), whose sexual awakening charges in the door with the wounded soldier.

A cunning man with an eye to survival, McBurney plays down his Yankee identity, and plays up to every female in the household. He becomes a chameleon, transforming into whatever form of man a given girl or woman needs. For Amy, he’s a friendly father-figure who eagerly listens to her chattering on about bird nests and nature. For Martha, he’s a thoughtful gentleman, who’ll share a snifter of brandy and also share in the gardening duties. To Edwina, who teeters on the brink of spinsterhood, he is dashing knight with poetic compliments straight out of a fairy tale. And to Alicia, he is a stud, ripe for the riding. Whatever it takes to keep him in the house and off the battlefields, that’s who McBurney will be for them. But as affections grow and desires throb, rivalries will come to a brusque and gruesome head, which pushes the Farnsworth women to some dark choices.

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Coppola has brought together an exquisite ensemble that plays the drama like a tender and tense symphony. Swanning about with a ramrod-straight spine and a gentle yet stern demeanor, Kidman holds court in every scene as the Southern aristocrat the Australian actress was apparently born to play. Moving with an implied apology to the air she disturbs, Dunst fuels her Edwina on repressed desires, aching to burst forth. Whether luxuriously bored in classes or brazenly flirting with the bed-stricken McBurney, Fanning radiates with the dangerous naiveté of youth; her smile a weapon she hasn’t quite learned to wield. And Farrell, with his slightly sleazy charm and buttery Irish accent, is the perfect beguiler, slipping from admirable etiquette at giddy dinners, to ardent confessions of love (“Within all my travels, I’ve never come across as rare a beauty as yours!”), to restrained pleas for mercy, and ultimately yowling threats.

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As clever as he is, McBurney misjudges these women. He thinks their affection is specific to him. But he is a beacon of a world beyond the war and this prim purgatory with its suffocating structure and chaste ennui. Each woman stands in resented suspension, awaiting when they might resume a life worth living. He is a taste of that future–with its promises of passion, freedom, and the allure of the unknown–and none can resist its temptation. Understandably, McBurney plays to their hearts to keep his place in the safety of the seminary’s walls. But when he overplays his hand, he reveals himself to be no gentleman or dreamboat, but an enemy after all. Howling like an wounded animal, threatening not only the Farsnworth’s women’s bonds of sisterhood, but their very lives, this will be his undoing.

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As thrillers go, The Beguiled is unique. It is not paced at a sprint, but as a stately promenade through gorgeous grounds, with a threat of violence on its fringes. There’s carnality, but much of it comes in heated gazes, instead of lusty action. Turning the tables on decades of male-dominated cinema, Coppola dares to ogle Farrell, revealing his hairy chest, strong hands, and bare thighs through the perspective of her love-starved heroines. She trusts in their looking and in their expressions to carry the meaning of so much unspoken. This is the greatest break from the Clint Eastwood-fronted 1971 adaptation, where the Farnsworth women’s inner thoughts sloppily spilled out in overzealous voiceover. Jarringly, that approach made the women seem more their stereotypes of spinster, “hussy,” and virgin. Whereas Coppola’s faith in her cast offers big emotional moments through crowded group shots where proximity is jolting, exchanged glances radiating with heat, and a well-placed wide-eyed stare.

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Coppola understands the complicated ways of a community of women, with its inherent rivalries and deep-seated loyalties. Like a maestro, she guides her cast of characters into a series of charged collisions, but never allows them down the path of the hysterical stereotypes too often found in female-dominated drama. There’s something quieter, more nuanced, and distinctly cheeky at play in The Beguiled. Coppola spins a story where there are no bad guys, just good people pushed to their limits. And there, the cracking of their moral codes compels the audience to an authentic empathy, awe, and the occasional morbid chuckle.

Seek it out, or else you’ll miss out on one of the most beautiful and electrifying films of the year.

4.5 out of 5 burritos. 

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Kristy Puchko is a freelance entertainment reporter and film critic. You can find more of her reviews hereFollow her on Twitter! 

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