Sofia Coppola’s dreamy remake is a celebration of women told via a self-assured female gaze and is one of the surprises of the year.
Coppola’s much anticipated The Beguiled (for which she won best director at the Cannes Film Festival) is made with a mix of intensity and detachment – a longtime trademark for the director. No one misses the subtle glares or yearning glances at the dinner table, but we never quite know the intentions of our characters. Is John McBurney – a wounded Union soldier played by the dashing but sadly miscast Colin Farrell (Irish accent fully in tow), really a threat?
He is found hiding under a tree in Virginia during the Civil War and is taken in by the seven female occupants of a girls boarding school – and it is here that Coppola sets her film, a look at the complexities of femininity and the heady feelings of excitement and danger a lone man can breed in young women. The original 1971 film was depressingly sexist, yet in 2017 Coppola reasserts the power with a group of young women she clearly understands. It isn’t about what is said, but what is not and the stolen moments the camera only peeps behind the door to see.
The film can almost be summed up in a single early scene: Miss Martha (played by an incredibly controlled yet vulnerable Nicole Kidman) must wash McBurney to prevent the dirt infecting the wound. Decorum is highly important; it must be done, but as the bathing progresses her emotions seethe under the surface – even she is flustered at the sight of him. And so the competition begins for his favour between each – for his affection, glance or even a kiss – but he is merely an observer. It’s through the women – Miss Jane (Angourie Rice), Miss Emily (Emma Howard), Miss Alicia (a sultry, sullen Elle Fanning) and Miss Edwina (a graceful and forlorn Kirsten Dunst) that we see the world. The setting is beautiful, yet gloomy and repressive; haunted by the fact that the girls nor McBurney has the freedom to leave.
Any disruption to disorder is unsettling, so is McBurney a prisoner or a guest? Is he truly a threat to his hosts or is it the other way around? It isn’t long before lust and violence linger in the air, but there are also moments of innuendo that are brilliantly funny, expertly handled by the director. Scenes of the soldier tending to a woman’s garden (brazen innuendo) and fantastically over the top dinner attire add a break in the atmosphere before things take a darker turn. “What have you done to me you vengeful bitches?!” Farrell shouts in a moment of almost comical rage.
The film isn’t without flaws – the pacing change is too abrupt near the end, giving us little time to process the dramatics that occur in the final act and Farrell is much too sweet to be wholesome in early parts – but what Coppola and her vengeful bitches have done is given us one of the most talked about films of the summer. You’ll be swept along with the story, even though it’s far from perfect. But see it you should, if only to try and make sense of what the fuss is all about.
The Beguiled is in cinemas from Friday, July 14th.