Overview: During the Civil War, an injured yankee soldier in Virginia is taken in by a group of women who begin to fall for him and conspire to ensure he never leaves. 2017; Focus Features; Rated R; 93 minutes.
A Pretty Picture: At its best, The Beguiled is an aesthetically pleasing movie. Dimly lit, even hazy at times, we are surrounded by delicate florals, long sweeping willow trees and beautiful women serenaded by the natural sounds of Virginia. Each moment is a painting that begs you to pause and admire it, but you’re given little time to do so. Looks never linger long enough, silences don’t stretch nearly the time they deserve.
Such is the way of Sofia Coppola’s films, movies beautifully framed and posed; full of complex and alluring women. She is known for portraying a particular feminine experience, but something feels different – even rushed – about The Beguiled. In the end, and unlike her previous films, her vision and her voice ultimately becomes diluted in the watery-thin script of this civil war drama, even with its star-studded cast.
The setting has so much potential. The women are cocooned, surrounded by the distant sound of cannons but cloistered in the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies. This could be a hotbed of drama already, but despite slight personality conflicts the women seem bored more than anything else. They’ve got their mending, their gardening, and their lessons to keep them occupied while the war goes on. It seems that life has not changed much for them as the men are off somewhere dying on the field, they are, in some ways, ladies in perpetual waiting.
The Man: The only real male presence to disrupt the quietly unsatisfying life at Miss Martha’s is the badly-injured Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell), found by young Amy (Oona Laurence) while she’s out picking chanterelles and humming a tune. Her “good Christian heart” implores her to help him hobble along to the seminary to recover from his wounds.
This is exciting. It is a break from the young girls’ studies of the French language, perfect cursive, and nightly prayers. Here is a man on the front porch, and a blue-belly, at that! Only Jane (Angourie Rice) fiercely questions his presence as an enemy to the South, but she’s hushed up in the interest of charity and a change to the daily pace. It doesn’t hurt that he’s handsome and has a foreigner’s accent. The women briefly consider following protocol by alerting the forces that they’ve captured a yankee, but first they’ve got to sew up his bum leg. It’s the right thing to do, and personal wills are best hidden behind Christian niceties. Shortly after, Miss Martha implores the girls to reflect on what they can learn from his presence.
SPOILER: NOT MUCH
Colin Farrell plays himself at the mercy of the women who save them, but he makes it imminently clear, nearly the moment he becomes lucid, that he’s a skeezy scam-artist. He sees each woman’s weak point and shivs it. Despite their strongest resistances, each of them melt to him, exposing more of their softness and desire. Each of them fall for it. The problem is, he’s not believable. In this case, you’d have to assume the women were half-starved or hysterical to fall for his schemes. It’s not enough that they’ve not been around men in awhile. It’s not enough that at least one of them is mourning the loss of her own.
Farrell, despite his smooth, sexy voice and handsome darkness plays this like a lazy dog rolling over for scratches he thinks he deserves. This might work if the women were as spinning mad as their predecessors in Don Siegel’s version, but they’re not. These women are more even-tempered and focused and it seems strange that they’d fall for his obvious lack of charm.
The Women: Unsurprisingly, Nicole Kidman gives the strongest performance as the eponymous Miss Martha, a woman who has given herself to righteousness because it is how she has chosen to survive among the limited options presented to her. She plays this role without the expected false piety and stupidity that is often reserved for women of this type. McBurney recognizes the pride in her strength and plays to it with a false respect and obedience. She, more than anyone else, is able to see through his wiles but does little to communicate it or nip it in the bud beyond giving curt thin-lipped replies. Early on, she takes charge and delegates tasks to Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) as the two of them clean his wound and sew it shut. A fleeting moment of eroticism peeks through as she nearly sweats buckets trying to give a sponge bath, her long fingers terrified to come too close to his manhood. She takes several breaks and heaving breaths as the camera lingers, much like her eyes, on his chest, thighs and hips. It has been a long time since she’s touched a man, and it’s obvious and sexy, and that’s where the sexiness ends.
Kirsten Dunst is a missed opportunity in this role, barely allowed to shine as Edwina a woman who wants more than anything or anybody to leave the seminary behind. It’s mentioned that she may be more familiar with city life (hence her inappropriately bared shoulders at dinner) but somehow she is the most helpless among them all. She’s easily swayed by compliments to her beauty and professions of love. But what else exists about her, besides low self-esteem and a longing to leave? Thankfully she will be encouraged to push beyond the limits around her and act outside of respected customs, but with seemingly no lasting change and a broken heart to boot. This is Dunst’s 4th time working with Coppola who should have a greater understanding of the potential and range that she can achieve. Her moment is too little, too late when it finally comes.
Elle Fanning practically sleepwalks through her role, prancing around like a horny teenager who enjoys stoking a fire she has no intention of being warmed by. Imagine the devilish charm that could come with this, the troublemaking, instigating arguments with the other women and sticking her finger in every pie. She never reaches those depths, instead just peering dolefully and obviously from the outside. She steps out of prayer to plant a kiss on McBurney’s lips, sending an obvious message of her budding sexuality to he who is all too eager to return the favour tenfold.
Here’s where we can get real, if we’re not afraid to. We need to talk about the way the womens behaviour changes towards themselves and to each other in order to extract value. The women nitpick and shame each other even though they’re all after the same dick.
Before long, the girls begin to wear their “sunday best” braiding and ribboning their hair, wearing special brooches and hanging around the bedroom door. Oooo la la! When Edwina is around, McBurney points out her soft and impressive beauty. When Martha is around, he praises her bravery and strength. Amy’s curiosity is encouraged. But still, everyone is neatly contained and reserved and shallow as McBurney plays whatever part is required to seduce his specific audience.
They each try to impress the man with their skills. Jane plays piano and violin, Elle makes an apple pie (can we get any more obvious) but Edwina wants you to know it’s her recipe, and Amy wants you to know she picked the fucking apples, and do you like apple pie, Mr. McBurney? Oh, it’s your favourite? Me too.
Missed Opportunities: The women will eventually realize that McBurney is no prince charming, no golden ticket out of the seminary, and certainly no good lover, but it comes too late and at great cost. By the time the women should be banding together against their newly-realized threat, they are, and for the most part remain, split apart.
Nobody seems to confront one another, but more importantly they fail to confront themselves. This means nobody is learning anything from their experiences. This would be fine if there were some “guilty pleasure” aspect to watching the events unfold. By removing the original’s pulpy goodness, its hysteria, hell, even the bloody amputation scene, the things that make it great, Coppola has left the experience anemic by not replacing it with anything, not even much of a social commentary. Where Don Siegel’s film broached several raw subjects (whether it was done well or not), Coppola has decided to ignore or abandon them. Instead, it comes across as a cheap retelling of a good story by someone who forgot all the good bits or who was afraid of actively challenging the problematic material.
So how can one add value to a story that restricts itself in such a way? If the point of this movie is to focus on how women behave and create rivalries around men, shouldn’t it say something about the cause or a solution? The movie doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know and it fails to even do so in a compelling format. Dialogue is stilted and awkward, strangely obvious and lacking warmth. What’s more, by abandoning what made the original great it turns out to be a flat, cold movie with little emotion and barely any eroticism.
The fact that these characters are recognizable in their stock format is telling. We know women like this, removed from the time period they are displayed in here. Perhaps we are women like this, insecure and jealous, tearing each other down while trying to fluff our own feathers for a cock. The disapproval we may feel for their behaviour should reflect on us and our own, if anything can be learned. Take note, the presence of a smooth-talking womanizer should not be enough to destroy our female relationships. We’re smarter and stronger than that. The women here don’t seem to learn that, nor do they take a perverse, entertaining pleasure in it, and that’s a shame.
Overall: Despite boasting a strong cast, The Beguiled coasts along and fails to satisfy beyond its meager portions. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie. If you’re looking for lurid details and a memorable experience, you’ll get more at a pedicure appointment with your best friend than from Coppola’s latest work.
Featured Image: Focus Features