Smoke creeps in to Sofia Coppola’s southern landscape of The Beguiled, a girl’s school led by the stiff Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) still functioning on bare bones. That encroachment reminds of the battle not too far off, the sounds of cannons just at the ear’s reach, and the potential for their secluded world to collapse. But the struggle inside this dusty mansion is both within and without, as a wounded northern soldier Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) tests both their will and his welcome through sexual and emotional manipulation.
These women are not so easily swayed as he believed.
The film not only provides one of Coppola’s most complex ideological landscapes, and the director seems to be delighting in such. One of the things that makes the film so subtly enervated is that no allegiance we have for any of these characters comes without some moral strings. These women are former slave owners, yet are justified in their righteousness against the toying of their invader. Similarly, Farrell’s performance draws up sympathy just as much as he allows us to see every angle McBurney takes in wrapping these women around his finger. As the film arrives at its final uncompromising acts, the lines between necessity and ulterior motive are blurred – with Coppola providing no answers but a cheeky smile.
But Coppola’s eye is with the women of the house. The film is of a piece with her body of work, studying the anxiety of restless young (white) women. Unlike the original adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel that starred Clint Eastwood and emphasized the corporal’s survival instincts as justification, Coppola is curious about the sometimes disparate headspace of each woman as McBurney plays her. Her frequent collaborator Kirsten plays the prim Edwina full of longing, her willingness to accept the deceptions among the film’s most subtle acting work and heartbreakingly honest. Coppola judges her choices no more than any of the more dastardly actions elsewhere. That she stays in her lane regarding depictions of slavery is somewhat wise, even if it’s not fully ignored.
The director is also in exciting new territory with a chamber piece far more verbose than any of her previous efforts. Her screenplay adaptation is rife with subtext and allegorical meaning, easily transferable to ongoing discussions about male expectations thrust upon women from their place, their status, even the things men think they want to hear and the expected impact. It’s cheeky and unpretentious in its timeliness, its breezy hour and a half keeping the film from being too self-righteous – it’s actually quite fun.
Which isn’t to say the film isn’t as formally beautiful as some of the best Coppola films. Cinematographer Phillippe Le Sourd creates thematically loaded and instantly iconic visuals in a claustrophobic frame, crating a stifling light filled with dust and tension. Stacey Bettat’s period costuming is gorgeous, and informs on character as much as Coppola’s script and the solid ensemble. The experience is sensually immersive, our eye drawn with precise editing and an unsettling sound design that brims with danger.
Kidman has seen a major recent resurgence in popularity, and her Miss Martha is a reminder of the kind of work she has always done in service of directorial vision. Her choices never mug the camera with movie star charisma, instead she’s more understated and serpentine, something terrifying and inviting in how she coldly maintains control. As Kidman’s career sees a resurgence for more mainstream, warm work, a thorny and reserved performance such as this is a reminder of what a true versatile virtuoso she is.
Farrell yet agains proves to be one of our most undervalued leading men – it would be foolish to call anything from him his best these days with all the new shades he gives each time out. Here he is playing a man of many faces – if Coppola’s gaze doesn’t permit us to see the full intentions behind his machinations, Farrell does provide some sense of who the real man is. As McBurney he’s sexy and occasionally ambiguous, impressively fascinating for how much of our attentions belong to the women.
This Coppola malaise comes with great consequence and gives audiences more to debate – if not her best film to yet, it is certainly her most ambitious. Without easy conclusions and with some elemental treasures, The Beguiled is a poisoned entertainment of the highest order.