Delicacy and Decay; these are the words that I would use to describe the general feel of this latest Adaption of The Beguiled. This is the sort of the film that caters to movie buffs and those looking for a slow burner, something that director Sophia Coppola has proved to be master of over the past 20 years. But this film takes her to explore a period of time, where things move at a slower pace and human nature is more, on-end than today, so the question is; is this film another Coppola classic?
Adapted from the novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan, the story of The Beguiled takes place in 1864, Virginia at a school for girls. All of the slaves and servants have left and those who remain consist of 5 students including Alicia (Elle Fanning) and 2 teachers; Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst). One day, one of the students brings back a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell) from the woods and the school decides to shield him from the Confederacy. However, his presence soon proves to bring disbalance to the social order the girls and soon, they begin to realise that this man might not be all charm and smiles that he seems. Like I said, this is a slow burning story, even though it is only 94 minutes long and for most, that combined with the period drama aspect is enough for people to walk out. But, when you look at the details of the story and the characters; lust, pride, desire, order and religion all link together to create the right atmosphere for the film. It is a very still world, where chaos is looking to interfere.
Sophia Coppola has already tackled historical drama in filmmaking with Marie Antoinette (2006), and from looking at that and comparing it to The Beguiled, the style has changed from flamboyant and ravishing, to restrained and orderly. She has got a firm grasp on the characters and the setting and has created this very surreal, almost dream-like world. She understands the aesthetics of the film and not many directors can do that; the ability to accommodate for the change in time and place. Normally, this is the realm of actors, and speaking of which, the performances in this film are astonishing. Nicole Kidman has almost dug up her mesmerising role in The Others (2001) and given it a southern twist. Kirsten Dunst displays the perfect balance between desire and normalcy with her complex act, but the crowning jewel of this film, has to be Colin Farrell. This has to be a career best performance from him and shows that he has the power to take on a tortured and fragile soul and turn into something no man would want to be; a monster.
Fragility and normalcy are also among the many themes of the movie; the girls appear to be almost puritan in spirit, but deep down, animalistic urges and the common ground for humans, to want something, quickly consumes them all. I think you are beginning to get the picture that The Beguiled is a period piece a bit like Barry Lyndon or War and Peace; the aesthetics and characters are the centre of the film, but then again, that should be the case for just about any movie these days. But, don’t think that just because it has a measly budget, that it hasn’t expended the effort to make Civil-War Virginia look as real as the characters.
For one thing, the sound design of this film, follows in very similar footsteps to that of Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016); you are constantly in the midst of nature with crickets going off, bird song in the air and the gentle breezes of the wind on the trees within the swamps and woodland of Virginia. This silence gives a fantastic sense of tension and foreboding within the structure of the film, and indeed silence is mostly what the audience is likely to hear, considering that when it comes to music, The Beguiled doesn’t really have anything.
Indeed, they actually hired Phoenix to do the music of the film and you can hear it, but it only appears for about 3 minutes in the main film, before the credits take the bulk of the soundtrack. The music itself isn’t actually very authentic or plays to the aesthetics of the period, it has its own ideas about how to convey what it happening on screen. It has a very electronic feel to it and seems to focus very heavily on the tension and guilt that is present within the film, but it is only there for very few moments at a time, and frankly, I do think that more of the film could feature it, as when you hear it, you definitely hear it.
To be brutally honest, the sound design of the film is great, but the music doesn’t complement the story enough. What does complement it, is the way the film looks. The production design for a small budget film has been restricted to a hiring Jennifer Coolidge’s home in New Orleans, having said that however, it is wonderful. The detailing within the house is exquisite; the polished wooden floors, the carved candle holders, the mix of stone and metal in the kitchen and very southern embroidery in the curtains and cushions. Do you what it is, it is a house from the south, but at least it isn’t trying too hard to echo the past sins of slavery and servitude.
The production is a flat-out success, I can’t say the same however for the cinematography. Philippe Le Sourd has clearly decided to take the Days of Heaven (1978) approach to cinematography; mostly natural light, shot at the magic hour and a fairly limited colour palette. The colour palette is very muted; decaying greens and greying whites and overall, the quality of the light inside the house is so dim, that you have to watch this film with the lights on just to see anything, it’s like where dark glasses going down to the basement. However, I can see that with this majorly dark style and beautiful shots of sunlight piercing through the trees, you get the sense that the overall feel of this film, is not of beauty, but of deception.
That feel isn’t just restricted to the look of Virginia, but also the characters. When I was studying English Literature for A Level, I learnt that from reading period texts, the attire of people denotes a lot to their mental and emotion state in the moment. Every girl in this film wears very fragile and graceful dresses, while the soldier wears a more rugged and uniform, err… uniform. From this you can see the divide in elegance and function and that reflects in how the two parties treat each other as the story progresses.
This is not a bad film, far from it. But I can’t escape the fact that with a limited use of music, dimly lit cinematography and I didn’t mention this before, but only 3 of the 8 performances having real presence, that The Beguiled could have a lot more to show for itself. Having said that, don’t shy away from it; it is a well-made film from a true director of cinema.
I give this film a 7.5/10.