The Beguiled (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sofia Coppola’s period drama “The Beguiled,” based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan, is such a beautiful-looking film that its images likens that of looking into a memory from a hundred years ago. From the exquisite details of handmade dresses, curious paintings hanging on walls, to the manner in which only natural light is used even when there is no daylight, it offers a transportive experience as the tension boils from underneath a seemingly straightforward plot involving a badly wounded soldier (Colin Farrell) being taken in by a seminary led by Miss Farnworth (Nicole Kidman).
This is not a movie for viewers who expect fast-paced unfolding of the material, but it is exactly for audiences who appreciate details both in what is shown or merely insinuated. It is most concerned with human interactions and flaws: how female characters interact before and after a man is in their living space, what they are willing to do in order to garner the attention of a stranger, how they change themselves just to be regarded a certain way by someone who they do not even know. This is a film about attraction, how blinding it is—not necessarily romantic attraction but that of lust and how the energy around us is transformed by something or someone we want so badly. Although set in the Civil War era, the subject is timeless.
There are solid performances across the board. The females in the seminary vary in age. Notice how each of them has a specific strategy when it comes to getting the attention of the opposite sex. For example, Amy (Oona Laurence), about thirteen or fourteen, uses sweetness and friendship to get on Corporal McBurney’s good side. On the other hand, Alicia (Elle Fanning), about sixteen or seventeen, uses her feminine wiles, her body, her eyes, to lure the attention of a man easily twice her age. And then there is Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), possibly in her thirties, who doesn’t even bother to pretend to be anyone else. Meanwhile, Miss Farnsworth’s strategy (Kidman) is apparent disinterest in the man but she reminds everyone, not only the stranger in their midst, that she has the most power in their home. Laurence, Fanning, Dunst, and Kidman approach their characters with curiosity, grace, and, when necessary, danger.
The picture can be criticized for its lack of fluctuation in delivering emotions. Some may call it downright tedious or boring. I believe its rather monotonous look and feeling is done on purpose because these are characters who are essentially dead. Yes, they are alive physically but they have been hidden from society for so long, away from their friends and loved ones, that they could only refer to the life outside as if they would be stuck forever in a never-ending war. Take special notice of the very last shot. These women and children are prisoners by choice. In a way, this is a horror film underneath dramatic layers.
“The Beguiled” is a product of a precise vision and it can be enjoyed with the right mindset. The picture is not about action but inaction. What are these people saying to one another during moments of silence, how they hold their faces down when should be looking up, the discrepancies between what they choose to express versus what they wish to express? Clearly, the work is, but not exclusively, for deep thinkers.