Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning
I’ve expressed my sentiments on period pieces more than a few times over the several years that I’ve run this site. At its worst, the genre is as dry, dull, and unimaginative as movies can really get. But just as with anything, there are exceptions to this opinion. The only worthwhile period pieces that I’ve seen are the ones that push the genre’s boundaries; the ones that infuse a certain level of intensity and personality into the mix that its contemporaries regularly seem to avoid.
The Beguiled is that exception.
Set in Alabama in 1864, three years into the Civil War, the serenity of a girls school is disrupted by the sudden presence of an injured Union solider (Colin Farrell), whose arrival stirs jealousy amongst the school’s residents.
Right from the opening frame, writer and director Sofia Coppola establishes a haunting tone and sense of unease as we pan down from the sun peaking through a series of willows down to a young student humming an ominous tune to herself as she proceeds down an extensive woodland path. And that tone is maintained consistently and thoroughly throughout the film’s compact 94-minute run time.
Whether it’s the dense forests isolating the school from the outside world, the bombshells exploding and bullets firing all around them from a war never seen but only heard, or cinematography dripping with lush Southern Gothic imagery, this is a strange and intense recreation of an era that the period piece genre rarely gets to showcase. It’s what helps this movie differentiate itself from others of its kind. It has a distinct personality, and focuses far more on the story’s thematic material rather than on the representation of a different era.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t do a good job at that. On a strictly visual level, it exceeds flawlessly. Every costume, every prop, and every set looks absolutely stunning and era-accurate.
But in the end, that wasn’t the first item on this film’s agenda. What makes this film so consistently-compelling is what’s on its mind. It explores the isolation of this small group of women, who are essentially distanced from a regular society while all of the men they knew are out fighting a gruesome war. Repression is a central theme at play here, whether it’s sexual, which this film displays on a very prominent level, or emotional, which is explored in more subtle ways.
Kirsten Dunst plays a teacher at the institution whose live hasn’t panned out exactly how she had hoped. She spends her days in a place that she’d rather not be, working a job she isn’t passionate for that keeps her from expressing herself and pursuing her real goals. Meanwhile, Elle Fanning’s character continuously expresses an extreme disconnect with her lessons and day-to-day routine.
It isn’t until the emergence of Corporal John McBurney, Farrell’s character, that these inner desires and frustrations come to the surface. His presence alone stirs the proverbial pot. Soon enough, tensions between the women run high, and it becomes a behind-the-scenes competition for his affection. At first, Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), the matriarch of the group, insists on turning him over to the Confederate troops. However, even she grows attached to him, and the very fabric that holds the school together begins to tear.
It’s when the girls act on their repressed sexuality that the film’s real drama comes about. The film focuses a lot on humankind’s primal desires for sex, and the harm that repressing it can cause. Jealousy eats away at the group before the veil is completely lifted and drastic measures are taken.
The film sets up an interesting dynamic between McBurney and the women, and manages to twist each of their motivations and morality enough to where it becomes ambiguous as to who’s in the right and wrong. I love it when a film can toy with you and leaves it up to you to pick a side, if you’re able to at all. It leaves most of the actions and motivations of the characters up to personal interpretation.
Where the film lost me occasionally, however, is also something that can be left up to the viewer’s decision. Because it takes place in the south during the Civil War, slavery was, of course, a part of the era. And the film doesn’t gloss over or ignore this fact – it’s stated that the girls school once had slaves, but they have since left. So therefore, it’s been established that, yes, these women are in the south, and share some values with the Confederates, at the very least.
McBurney fights for the Union, otherwise known as the side of the war that was opposed to slavery. Despite his maniacal outbursts and aggression in the third act, I still found it rather difficult to side with anyone else but him. How exactly am I supposed to sympathize with a group of people who seemed to be alright with owning slaves, and turning a solider who fought against it to the Confederates?
The film’s politics serve as the biggest grey area here. Maybe I’m reading too far into this. Slavery and racism aren’t the themes of focus here. They’re far from it. The core story is clearly about jealousy, sexuality, and repression. It was just a detail that I couldn’t look past for the majority of the run time.
Sofia Coppola’s vision for this period drama is outstanding. I haven’t seen the 1971 original, so I’m unable to compare the two versions. However, what I loved so much about Coppola’s direction is how she combines beautiful visuals, an eerie atmosphere, proper pacing in the tension, and even a little bit of humor, always used appropriately, to make this such a unique entry into the genre. Even if her writing didn’t always serve certain character motivations well (a young girl comes to a shocking solution for the intruder in the third act that seems totally out of character), Coppola showcases far more strengths than weaknesses here, and this deserves to go down as one of her best films.
The Verdict: We need more period pieces like The Beguiled. Films like this one liven up the genre and find nuanced, interesting ways to tell stories that suit the era it evokes, while keeping it relatable for a modern audience. Despite inconsistencies in the writing and some skewed politics, this was a thoroughly tense, impeccably-acted, and beautifully-directed movie that will leave you hanging in suspense until that white-knuckled finale.