FILM REVIEW: "The Beguiled" is seductive and enticing entertainment
It is not often that remakes are better than the original, with many mishaps created in order to please Hollywood execs and audiences alike. For example the ghastly 1998 Psycho and the mundane 2001 Planet of The Apes stand out as examples that not only disappoint but almost taint the legacy of the original. However, in Sofia Coppola’s latest offering, the newer version surpasses the outdated, widely-panned 1971 original. Coppola has clearly moulded this remake with her unique artistic sensibilities to such an extent that it almost acts as a companion to her debut film The Virgin Suicides.
Similar to Suicides, this opens with a beautiful tracking shot that's bathed in natural light. Without a speck of superficial light, we are able to experience the natural beauty of its New Orleans location. Filmed at the same house Beyoncé used for much of her ground breaking Lemonade album, The Beguiled can be thematically compared to it; both works feature motifs such as feminism, betrayal and jealousy. However, the difference is that Beyoncé was talking about her cheating husband, Jay Z, and unfortunately for some, Jay Z is not our leading man in this film. The leading man here is an extremely handsome and manipulative Colin Farrell as Corporal McBurney. It's a bewitching role that sees his character captivate the sexually repressed girls; we see him almost exclusively through the girl’s eyes.
One by one, the girls all become ~beguiled~ by a masculine presence they are not used to. Like in all of Coppola’s best films, the story-lines are fuelled by thematic and character transitions rather than dialogue and over-complicated plots. Set three years into the American civil war, The Beguiled follows the story of an injured enemy soldier. Wounded and near death, he seeks refuge at the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Girls. Everyone, including Miss Martha herself, (played by the always exuberant Nicole Kidman), finds themselves to be unusually flustered. Using this to his advantage, Corporal John McBurney seduces the girls and sets in motion a startling chain of events.
Usual Coppola collaborator Kirsten Dunst shines in a role that hasn’t suited her so well since The Virgin Suicides. Dunst brings her usual drollness, and this works spectacularly in her favour as she portrays Miss Martha's rather depressed right-hand-man. Her character, a shy woman who has repressed herself in order to commit to the girl’s school, is quite possibly the most fun; it's fun to see her corrupted by the handsome McBurney. No doubt viewers will be rooting for this tragically doomed couple to save the other from the woes that plague them outside their lusty trysts. But it is Nicole Kidman’s quietly cunning turn as the headmistress you would not want to piss off that is one of the most devilishly delightful things about this tale. Communicating mostly through stern glances and perfect posture, her character could be deemed as possibly the most intimidating in all of Coppola’s cinematic repertoire.
Coppola has firmly stated she isn’t about genre films, with her previous works such as Lost in Translation and Somewhere falling under the loose “cool indie” category. The depth of The Beguiled makes it impossible to categorise it. It's a surprising mix of a gothic horror and erotic thriller, both of which harmoniously mesh with unexpected humour. One particular scene that demonstrates The Beguiled's versatility is one in which Corporal McBurney joins the ladies for dinner. With Coppola working hard with the always lovely costume designer Stacey Battat, we witness amusing shifts away from the girls' previously stuffy outfits. Elle Fanning as one of the older girls shines in this scene, as we catch glances and glimmers of beckoning looks she not only shoots the Corporal, but also the haunting glares she shoots the other girls. Again, dialogue is not so important, but rather the way the women all non-verbally communicate with one another, educating not only McBurney on their feelings, but producing a sense of the subtle hierarchy that is at play. As Nicole Kidman’s character sits upright and proper at the head of the table, it becomes clear who'd be in control if anything were to disrupt the order of things. This subtle magic is something not all directors can master. With The Beguiled, less is more.
Another thing to note is Coppola’s love of a female orientated story. Although this has allowed The Beguiled to be a breath of fresh air, especially considering its male-focused origins, this particular theme seems to be a recurring aspect in all her films; in particular, privileged young white women are a common character archetype. Whereas, I see no problem in this, as I believe her skill behind the camera is undeniable and thrilling, it has to be noted there will be some who will nitpick what could be considered to be a formulaic story.
The Beguiled is a wickedly seductive film that adds feminist humour to an outdated classic, whilst still retaining the depth and intrigue that is necessary when creating a film of historic value. With a great cast and arguably one of the most idiosyncratic directors of her generation, The Beguiled is a film that's not to be missed.